The last Civil War battlefield use of balloons by the US Army took place at Fredericksburg in November 1862, and Hooker’s intelligence chief, George C. Sharpe, did not use this technology at all in 1863 or later—the North’s chief aeronaut, Thaddeus Lowe had resigned in disgust that April, and the corps itself disbanded that August.
In the late 1940s top priority for the American intelligence was determining how soon the Soviet Union would test their first atomic bomb, and creating the intelligence capabilities necessary to detect the explosion. Air Force WB-29s of the Air Weather Service detected the explosion of Joe-1 in 1949. Subsequently, various other methods were implemented, such as detecting sound at long ranges, as well as using balloons and air sampling at altitude. This detection system developed a variety of means of monitoring nuclear tests, and played a pivotal part in the atmospheric test-ban and threshold-limit treaties.
In 1948, the Weather Bureau formed a Special Projects Section (SPS) to engage in research utilizing meteorology to assist the emerging atomic energy program. During the early stages of the Cold War, many of these developments were involved in weapons testing. The original purpose of the Special Projects Section (SPS) (initially under Dr. Harry Wexler's Weather Bureau Research Division) was to carry out sensitive, classified research related to the United States nuclear weapons and atomic energy programs, hence the uninformative name. Dr. Lester Machta accepted the directorship of the unit in 1948 and was joined by four other meteorologists.
At that time, funding for the Special Projects Section was entirely from the Department of Defense and (a little later) from the Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor of the Department of Energy. For a protracted period, outside financial support was the exclusive or overwhelmingly dominant source of funds. This status was and still is often criticized because "soft money" is viewed as being less dependable than internal base funding. One noteworthy contribution of the SPS was the publication of Meteorology and Atomic Energy (1960). This handbook summarized the state of the science related to PBL processes and air pollution meteorology, including plume rise, turbulence and dispersion, and atmospheric stability. With contributions from SPS scientists and other experts, this book remained a primary source of practical and theoretical information for more than two decades, until supplanted by later revisions that were also prepared with substantial ARL input.
From 25 September 1958 through 31 July 1971, a balloon activities unit operated at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas. Detachment 160, 1110th Balloon Activities Group was activated at Goodfellow to launch, monitor and recover helium-filled, polyethylene weather balloons. Sponsored by the Atomic Energy Commission, the program collected gaseous and particle-debris samples from altitudes ranging from 70,000 to 135,000 feet in order to measure radioactivity in the stratosphere. At altitudes below 65,000 feet, specially modified B-57 Canberra aircraft collected the samples.
The balloons were sizable, measuring as much as 212 feet in diameter and containing four million cubic feet of helium. Suspended beneath each balloon was the payload -- nitrogen-driven electronic air-sampling equipment designed to work automatically but which could be operated by remote electronics if the automatic switches failed. On a typical mission, the package would ascend to a pre-determined altitude in the stratosphere and collect air samples for two and one-half hours. After another hour, automatic devices would deflate the balloon and detach it from the payload. From an altitude of 110,000 feet, the balloon would fall for 16 minutes before reaching the ground; assisted by a parachute, the payload would land 11 minutes later. At that point Goodfellow's balloon detachment, having followed the flight and descent of the balloon from one of its aircraft, would recover the package and deliver it to US Health and Safety laboratories for analysis.
A variety of aircraft supported the tracking and recovery of the balloons by Goodfellow personnel, including H-21 helicopters and U-6A, C-47, C-130 and Piper Cherokee 100 aircraft. Although most launches took place on the GAFB flight line, the detachment also launched balloons from other sites in Texas and from as far north as Alaska and South Dakota and as far south as the Canal Zone and Brazil. On 31 July 1971, Detachment 31, 6th Weather Wing inactivated at Goodfellow, bringing Goodfellow's balloon mission to a close after the launch of more than 1300 balloons.
That did not mark the end of Goodfellow's balloon activities, however. Three years later, in May 1974, the base supported a balloon experiment cosponsored by the University of Wyoming and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Called LACATE, or Lower Atmospheric Composition and Temperature Experiment, the project evaluated the possibility of remote inference of temperature and trace constituent concentrations in the stratosphere. With successful launches from Goodfellow, Holloman AFB in New Mexico, and Winslow, Arizona, the experiment was a precursor to satellite-borne LACATE flights commencing later in the decade.
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