November 6, 2006
The era of the weather balloon, both a decadesold useful scientific tool and
a convenient out for government officials to explain an unidentified flying
object, may be coming to an end.
The Associated Press reported last week about how a system of sophisticated
sensors attached to passenger airliners may send the balloon the way of the
rotary dial telephone, to oblivion.
Oh, yes: And beyond!
In addition to their applications in helping meteorologists track weather
patterns, these balloons also served as one of government's — and
Hollywood's — great scapegoats. No 1950s science fiction movie about
invaders from other planets was complete without the obligatory "remain
calm, there is no cause for alarm" scene. Some Air Force colonel or general
would assure a gathering of anxious reporters and nervous local residents
that what they saw zipping across the sky was "probably just a weather
Everyone was then told to go home and resume normal lives. Not long after
that, of course, the cinematic space aliens began full-scale attacks.
In real life, weather balloons were used as an explanation for what some
believed was the crash of a UFO outside Roswell, N.M., in July 1947,
according to the Roswell-based International UFO Museum & Research Center's
Since the Roswell incident — the recognized dawn of the UFO era — weather
balloons have been a quite plausible explanation for folks who believed they
saw Something from Out There.
The Valley is not exempt from UFOs with official rationales. It seems that
every time local television stations enter a ratings period, at least one of
them retells the story of the March 1997 "lights over Phoenix," with people
quoted saying they believed that the glowing objects they saw flying
overhead weren't from here. The government's earthly explanations of the
time involved military aircraft on a training mission.
As vast as is the universe's array of billions of stars with planets
revolving around them, intelligent life from a habitable world is indeed a
likely mathematical possibility. But that doesn't mean everything that isn't
explainable is therefore a candidate for a close encounter of whatever kind.
It could mean that, if the weather balloon is to be retired, the next time
something strange crosses the sky, the creative folks in our government just
might be called upon to come up with another explanation.