In early February 1945, the captain of the USS New York was playing golf when he spotted a strange object pursuing the battleship. The radio-silent ship was en route from Pearl Harbor to Eniwetok Atoll, a waypoint before its ultimate destination of bombarding Iwo Jima.
After investigating the “luminous metallic balloon” through binoculars, he ordered the ship’s gunner to mark the range of the threat, and then had marines and gunners take aim at what they assumed was a Japanese secret weapon a mere 800 yards away. The ship even signaled for the destroy escort to join the salvo.
“Finally, the navigator, who’d been asleep, came topside, rubbing his eyes,” William McGuire and Mark Murphy write in the regimental history of the battleship:
He put his hands down, looked around, and said, “What the hell you shooting at? That’s Venus, a damn planet.” “That’s what Venus looked like out there,” the yeoman concluded, “a Japanese secret weapon. The gunnery officer said he guessed he was pretty short on that range.”
Against the familiarity of the sky, balloons, satellites, and planets can all appear alien. Sometimes literally: Project Blue Book, which sought to document and study UFO sightings for the Air Force, frequently included sightings of Venus at dusk and dawn in its recording of unidentified flying object sightings. On Feb. 1, a high-altitude balloon launched from China drifted into the sky over the United States, disrupting air traffic in Billings, Montana. Its wind-blown course carried it to the Atlantic four days later, where an Air Force pilot in an F-22 stealth fighter shot it down with an air-to-air missile.
It remains to be seen what information, exactly, the balloon collected. After the shoot-down, the U.S. Navy sent ships and sailors into the area to recover the wreckage and, presumably, its sensors and data storage. Much has been made of the balloon’s path over silos housing nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles. Those same sites are visible from space, under satellite surveillance, and in open-source information. When information does come out, it will most likely be by selective release, disclosures chosen by the U.S. government and, possibly, China, aimed at explaining what exactly the balloon was doing, and how ominous or benign the world should treat that activity as being.
As a specter haunting American skies and, for a week, American news, the balloon made visible two undeniable but forgettable facts: The United States is part of a connected world, and other countries can use those connections to observe what is happening on and above the surface here—just as the U.S. does to its allies and enemies alike.
While the regimental history of the USS New York makes no mention of it, those sailors perceived Venus as a hostile balloon mere months after Japan had launched armed balloons into the jet stream. The jet stream is a high-altitude atmospheric flow, and its discoverer, Hidetoshi Arakawa of the Central Meteorological Observatory in Tokyo, had published his results in the 1920s in Esperanto, a constructed language imagined as international but largely the domain of hobbyists and, occasionally, diplomats’ children. The military deployment of the jet stream to carry bombs between continents suddenly crashed the illusion of vast oceans as a safe barrier between the interior of the United States and other nations. Japan’s incendiary balloons were conceived of and launched as retaliation for the U.S.’ 1942 Doolittle Raid on the home islands, with the goal of burning forests and cities. These FuGo balloon weapons hit in an especially wet year, limiting the extent of the forest fires they caused. The only recorded deaths from the devices came when most of an Oregon family tragically encountered one while picnicking and set off its unexploded payload.
Despite decades spent in possession of overseas colonies (five of which are still part of the U.S. as territories), it took the expansive theaters of World War II for Americans to turn to other ways to understand the globe as threatening vulnerability through connection, rather than isolation and protection through distance. As artist and cartographer Richard Edes Harrison explored in popular World War II maps of the globe, the U.S. was not so far from the lands of Europe and Asia.
While FuGo balloons were technically an intercontinental weapon, the long range of bombers and, later, missiles would shrink the globe further. Nuclear bombs, with an explosive impact measured in kilotons and then megatons, could easily fit into planes that could strike from thousands of miles away. The U.S. used just two such bombs to kill 110,000 or 210,000 people. As policymakers and military planners moved from the end of World War II into the early Cold War, they did so with the knowledge that new weapons could be built and developed far away from the prying eyes of border patrols and port visits.
In the public eye, those fears manifested most clearly with the 1947 flying saucer phenomena, following a widely publicized pilot’s testimony of having seen unusual aircraft in the Pacific Northwest. A rancher in New Mexico, who had weeks earlier stumbled upon wreckage of a crashed balloon, revisited the debris after learning of the flying saucer. It was the start of the Roswell Incident, which became a foundational UFO story despite Army protestations that the recovered object was merely a weather balloon. In the 1990s, declassification revealed that, while absolutely a balloon, the wreckage was in fact part of Project Mogul, a U.S.
program to put acoustic sensors on high-altitude balloons to listen for nuclear tests in the USSR.
Project Genetrix, conceived of in 1950 and approved in 1956, used camera-carrying balloons to photograph the interior of the Soviet Union and China. Between Jan. 10 and Feb. 6, 1956, the project launched 448 balloons, 40 of which were recovered by the United States.
“The 13,813 usable photos covered 1,116,449 square miles of the Soviet Union and China (eight percent of their total area,” writes Curtis Peebles in High Frontier: The U.S. Air Force and the Military Space Program. “Because the balloons’ path could not be controlled, however, much of the photography was of fields and forests, areas of little intelligence value.”
But around the same time, two better, more durable alternatives to balloon surveillance emerged: spy planes and satellites.
In 1956, the U.S. started flights over the USSR with the high-altitude long-endurance U-2 spy plane. The planes provided meaningful information, like the smaller than expected size of the Soviet bomber fleet. They also carried risk, as the flights violated sovereign air space, and in 1960 the USSR shot down a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers, publicly revealing the program and creating an international incident. Planes could spy better than balloons, but human pilots were at both personal and political risk when used.
Sputnik 1, launched Oct. 4, 1957, became the first human-launched satellite. Sputnik was not itself a useful sensor, though valuable readings of atmospheric properties were made by measuring its gradual orbital decay. Instead, Sputnik demonstrated that the USSR had the rockets to put objects into space and, with that, hurl nuclear-armed missiles onto faraway continents. Sputnik was also a pivotal step for observation and spy satellites. A primary use of space by militaries to this day remains the housing of sensors used to spy on one another, including everything from high-resolution cameras to taking meteorological readings.
Unlike the spy planes, though, Sputnik 1 was very clearly visible from the ground, with a deliberately reflective coating, and in night skies with no other satellites. As a result, it showed that a single nation could change the sky for everyone. Sputnik made visible its implied nuclear threat, at once a wondrous technological achievement and an orbiting symbol of vulnerability. Satellites could also be tracked by observers on the ground, not just dedicated military ones, but hobbyists and civilians, too. Objects in orbit are hard to hide, though it is easier for them to become routine.
In 2023, decades after ICBMs and satellite surveillance became permanent fixtures of modern superpowers, it is easy for the shock and novelty of their creation to fade into the background. China’s balloon, whatever its purpose, became a physical and observable reminder of the often invisible work nations do to keep tabs on one another. With that comes a sense of renewed vulnerability, the kind that animated military and surveillance tools in the first Cold War.
As the balloon traveled across the sky, the U.S. dusted off another Cold War relic. Tracking the balloon on its course through American skies were pilots in U-2 spy planes. At least one of the pilots took a selfie with the balloon as backdrop, classified secret.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.