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GOPHER / Moby Dick / GENETRIX

Otto C. Winzen was an innovator and a visionary who is best known for introducing new balloon materials and construction methods. He emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1937 and spent World War II in a series of internment camps. He studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Detroit, where he met his wife, Vera Habrecht. After the war, he became involved with the rebirth of high-altitude ballooning and paired up with Jean Piccard at General Mills.

Very large volume gas envelopes are needed to achieve neutral buoyancy at high altitudes. Therefore, lighter-than-air vehicles are large and heavy, which limits the altitude at which the vehicles can operate. Winzen pioneered the use of polyethylene resin for plastic balloons. Produced from ethylene, a petroleum derivative, the polyethylene was light, relatively cheap, and unaffected by ultraviolet radiation. Winzen convinced his manufacturing sources to find ways to make the plastics thinner and thinner until his balloons were thinner than human hair.

Winzen left General Mills in 1949 to found Winzen Research, Inc., with the help of his wife, Vera, who played a key role as vice-president and chief of production. In the 1950s, Winzen sold plastic balloons to the Navy on Project Helios, Skyhook, and Strato-Lab. Starting in 1950 Winzen also sold plastic balloons to the Air Force on a secret reconnaissance mission to overfly Russia called GOPHER. A parrallel project called Moby Dick would use a similar balloon to acquire weather data. Some 640 MOBY DICK balloons were launched between February 1953 and June 1954, and testing of the GOPHER balloons began late in 1954.

Given a lack of intelligence regarding the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), on December 27, 1955, while the U-2 underwent flight trials, Eisenhower approved Operation GENETRIX [as the program was now named], an Air Force reconnaissance program, which caused considerable international protest. GENETRIX used camera-carrying high-altitude balloons released from bases in Western Europe to photograph Eastern Europe, China, and the Soviet Union. Once launched, the balloons drifted eastward on prevailing winds, taking pictures of whatever was below at predetermined intervals. American C-119 aircraft recovered the balloons over the Pacific Ocean.

This space "research" project consisted of the Air Force launching 516 Skyhook "weather" balloons from locations in Europe. These balloons carried automatic cameras. Given prevailing winds, the balloons were certain to pass over Eastern Europe and the USSR. If the research succeeded, the balloons - equipped with radiotracking beacons - were eventually to be recovered near Japan and Alaska.

The program produced limited intelligence. When the balloons passed over their territory, Eastern European nations and the USSR protested, complaining that the balloons disrupted civilian aircraft and were equipped for automatic aerial photography in an effort to obtain targeting information. Belgium and Czechoslovakian airlines canceled several flights to Czechoslovakia because of the balloons. The United States initially admitted that Radio Free Europe, an affiliate of a "privately financed anticommunist organization in the US," was flying propaganda balloons from West Germany.

The Air Force admitted that as part of Operation Moby Dick, it had released some two thousand balloons from various sites around the earth but denied that these releases were a threat to civilian flights. On 7 February 1956, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles responded to the Soviet protests by stating that, in the interest of "decent friendly relations," the US would "try" to stop the release of the "weather" balloons. While admitting that some of the weather balloons carried photographic equipment, the United States asserted that the equipment was only for taking pictures of high-altitude cloud formations. The Soviets responded that they had developed film from the balloons containing pictures of Turkish airfields. In the face of criticism that the balloons clearly violated the USSR's airspace, Dulles agreed to stop releasing them. He noted, however, that "the ownership of upper air" was "a disputabl equestion under international law."

By February 1956, when the president ended the program, the Air Force had launched 516 balloons. Most of the balloons drifted off course, crashed, or were shot down. The United States recovered 46 balloons; only 34 provided useful intelligence. When the Air Force laterproposed to release even higher flying balloons in mid-March 1956, Eisenhower informed Gen Nathan F. Twining, Air Force chief of staff, that he (Eisenhower) "was not interested in any more balloons" and terminated any further launches.

While the photographic intelligence GENETRIX provided was limited, of greater importance was the data that NATO radars obtained as they tracked the Moby Dick balloons. These data provided the most accurate record available of high-altitude winds (knowledge meteorologists later used to determine U-2 flights); information on Warsaw Pact radars and communications; and how high intercepting aircraft could fly.

A follow-on project in 1958 was called WS-461L. In 1959, a 170,000 cubic meter balloon carried a 43 kilogram payload to an altitude of 45.4K meters. At the time, this was the largest balloon to have been successfully launched. The introduction of StratoFilm® in 1965 solved a number of material related problems that had plagued the balloon community prior to that time. During the 1960's and 1970's, advances in film extrusion and balloon fabrication techniques facilitated the construction of increasingly larger balloons, culminating with a 1.5 million cubic meter (MCM) behemoth launched in 1975. Beyond this point, the ability to successfully launch larger balloons was constrained by limitations in materials and launch techniques. Although balloons of up to 2 MCM in size were constructed, none were successfully launched, and the 1.5 MCM balloon held the size record for over 25 years.

Winzen Research did well for itself in the 1960s. But after moving the manufacturing plant to Texas and selling off chunks of Winzen Research to his employees, Winzen started losing control. No longer looked to for advice and unhappy in a second marriage, depression set in. In 1976 at the age of 58, the great innovator of the plastic balloon revolution committed suicide.

Herman Melville's classic Moby Dick first published as The Whale in 1851. Melville shaped heroic figures larger than life, burning with mythic significance. The typical protagonists of the American Romance are haunted, alienated individuals - lonely protagonists pitted against unknowable, dark fates that, in some mysterious way, grow out of their deepest unconscious selves. Herman Melville was a descendant of an old, wealthy family that fell abruptly into poverty upon the death of the father. Despite his upbringing, family traditions, and hard work, Melville found himself with no college education. At 19, he went to sea. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Melville's masterpiece, is the epic story of the whaling ship Pequod and its captain, Ahab, whose obsessive quest for the white whale, Moby-Dick, leads the ship and its men to destruction. Whaling was a major industry in New England: It supplied whale oil as an energy source, especially for lamps. Thus the whale does literally "shed light" on the universe. Ahab, named for an Old Testament king, desires a total, Faustian, god-like knowledge. Although Ahab's quest is philosophical, it is also tragic. Despite his heroism, Ahab is doomed and perhaps damned in the end. Nature, however beautiful, remains alien and potentially deadly. In Moby-Dick, Melville challenges Emerson's optimistic idea that humans can understand nature. Moby-Dick, the great white whale, is an inscrutable, cosmic existence that dominates the novel, just as he obsesses Ahab. Whaling, throughout the book, is a grand metaphor for the pursuit of knowledge.



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Page last modified: 28-07-2011 00:49:23 ZULU