All Your Questions About the Chinese Balloon Floating Over Kansas City Answered

Needless to say, Republicans are demanding to shoot it down with a super-bazooka.

A blurry image of a large white balloon, under which black mechanical equipment is hanging, against a blue sky.
Balloon! Chase Doak via Reuters

There was a Chinese government balloon floating over Montana on Thursday that now appears to have blown to Kansas City, and it’s causing an old-fashioned international incident in addition to earning five-alarm BREAKING LIVE TRACKER coverage on every cable news network. Let’s get into it.

A government balloon? What the hell is that?

Late Thursday afternoon, NBC News reported that the U.S. military was tracking a “suspected Chinese surveillance balloon” that had flown into airspace above Billings, Montana, via Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and Canada. (The Associated Press has since published the sentence “The balloon was first reported by NBC News.” Thank you for reporting balloon, NBC.) As of this writing, it appears to be hovering above Kansas City, Missouri.


Could you quantify just how big this balloon is, preferably in terms of the number of large vehicles that could fit inside of it?


An anonymous “senior official” told ABC News that this balloon is the size of three buses. It was unclear what type of buses the official was referring to, but three of them, in any case, sounds real big.

Is this balloon a threat to my family’s safety?

Probably not: A Pentagon spokesperson told CNN Friday that the balloon is flying far above commercial airspace, “does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” and “does not present a significant intelligence gathering risk.” While Montana is home to multiple nuclear missile installations, as well as on-location filming of the successful cable show Yellowstone, neither the Pentagon nor the Paramount Network apparently believed that any active measures against the balloon were required.


What if it’s a nuclear balloon?!?!?

A reporter asked this question of a Department of Defense press secretary on Friday. He replied in essence that no, the military does not believe the balloon is a nuclear bomb.

So we’re not gonna take this thing out?

According to an anonymous Pentagon official quoted by NBC, some “defense leaders” proposed shooting down the balloon, but the idea was dismissed because of the risk that falling debris could harm citizens on the ground. (Still, if there does turn out to be a national security need, an official speaking in a background briefing transcribed by the Department of Defense reassured reporters that “we will have options to deal with this balloon.”)


The balloon is not the first such Chinese device to drift over U.S. territory, per the DOD. “Instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration,” one anonymous official explained to CNN. Another told ABC News that this has “happened a handful of other times over the past few years,” although this particular balloon drew extra concern because “it is appearing to hang out for a longer period of time this time around.”


The [SPOILER ALERT] nightmarish human-sucking alien entity from the 2022 film Nope looked a lot like a balloon, and it started the movie by “appearing to hang out” over a ranch.

Don’t worry about it.

What does China have to say?

A spokesperson for the Chinese government confirmed Friday that the balloon originated from thereabouts, but claimed it was not a spy balloon—merely a “civilian airship” used for research about weather patterns. In this case, the balloon “deviated far from its planned course,” thanks to its “limited self-steering capability” and the strong wind currents of the westerlies. The U.S. government is suspicious of this explanation. (Reasonable, considering the Communist Party also said Friday that “China is a responsible country”—hmm—“that always abides by international law”—uh-huh—“and has no intention of infringing on any country’s territory and airspace.” Totally, yeah.)


How is this affecting the U.S.’s relationship with China?

Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a planned weekend trip to Beijing, just hours before he was set to depart—and did so because, ABC News reports, he “does not want the balloon to dominate his meetings with Chinese officials.” And fair enough: He was absolutely going to get asked about the balloon, and only the balloon, every time he stepped out in public or appeared at a press conference during the trip.

It would be funny if the delegation that eventually meets him when he does go to China brings a bunch of big Mylar balloons to him on the tarmac.

Yes, that would be classic.

I almost forgot to ask—are the Canadians OK?


The Canadian government clarified that “Canadians are safe” and the country is “taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident.”


Hold on, potential second incident?

Yeah. We have no idea what that is. But it’s probably nothing. Don’t worry about it.

I’m back to thinking that this balloon needs to be terminated with extreme anti-balloon prejudice, and I’m guessing there are some right-wing political figures in the U.S. who agree with me.


Yes. Donald Trump, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, and the Fox News opinion pages are among those who have called on President Joe Biden to shoot down the balloon. (“SHOOT DOWN THE BALLOON!”, wrote Trump on his Truth Social site.) Former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake is ready to blast it herself with a hunting rifle. (Newsmax’s Greg Kelly—despite tweeting that “This BALOON is totally Freaking me OUT!!!”—suggested only that it be given a “nudge” back toward Canada.)


How did Montana residents handle the balloon’s presence?

Naturally, they filmed it on their phones, which means the balloon has made it to TikTok. Some posts describe it as a UFO, though, which is wrong: It’s not unidentified if we know it’s a Chinese spy balloon that might also be an alien that is going to eat us at a carnival.

Is it common for balloons to be used for spying?

The practice of using balloons for reconnaissance dates back to a late 18th century battle during the French Revolution, albeit one in which the hot air balloon in question was apparently floating too far above ground to be useful.

The Pentagon has been developing its own inflatables surveillance program; a Politico piece about the program explains that they’re cheaper and faster to build than satellites and move in less predictable paths. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the United States also deploys 409 military or government satellites. (China has about 160.) Before digital photography, the film in satellite spy cameras had to be jettisoned down to Earth in secret capsules to be developed, which is kind of wild.


What about airplanes?

Yes, the U.S. uses high-altitude U-2 planes, among others, to gather information. (The band U2 is so named in what its frontman, Bono, says is in part a reference to the spy plane.) The Soviet Union shot a U-2 craft down in 1960, forcing pilot Gary Powers to bail out of his plane and into immortality as an answer to trivia questions.

What was the United States’ excuse to the Soviets as to why one of its airplanes was flying over their country?

That it was a weather plane that had gotten lost. (Powers was returned to the U.S. in a prisoner swap.)

I remember this “we were just studying the weather” excuse from something else as well.


Indeed, on July 8, 1947, an Air Force public information officer announced that service personnel had come into possession of debris from a “flying disc” gathered near Roswell, New Mexico by a rancher named W.W. “Mac” Brazel. The next day, the Department of Defense issued a statement claiming the object in question was a weather balloon.

Do either of the co-authors of this article have a personal connection to Roswell, New Mexico?

Ben Mathis-Lilley’s father, Joe, was raised in Roswell.

Where is this “UFO Joe” now?

He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Fort Collins? The launching point of the infamous 2009 “Balloon Boy” craft?


What, exactly, is going on with this article?

Watch the skies!