Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Cold War’s Least Believable Surveillance Strategy

In an effort to gather information from behind the Iron Curtain, the U.S. Air Force launched hundreds of spy balloons to float over the Soviet Union, collect photographic coverage, and hopefully reappear in friendly airspace for midair recovery...

In the days before reconnaissance satellites, balloons were seen as a safer alternative to proposals for manned overflights, and less provocative than plans to attach cameras to cruise missiles. But the audacity of the balloon program also reflected the tremendous appetite for recon information in Washington. In his 1991 history of the Moby Dick program, as it was known, Curtis Peebles describes how “the reconnaissance balloon had the highest national priority of 1-A. The only other project to share this priority was the hydrogen bomb. Knowledge is power.”

The balloons carried a 150-pound metal box with the approximate dimensions of an old television. Inside, a camera, film, and electronics were shielded from the conditions by several inches of styrofoam. Two additional tubs of ballast provided the balloons with rudimentary navigational aids. If sensors indicated a drop in altitude, magnetic valves inside the tubs could gradually release its steel dust to lighten the load. more