50 years ago, a balloon circumnavigated the world for science

Excerpt from the April 7, 1973 issue of Science News

A photo of white opaque balloon with a wire and small contraption just below rising into a blue sky.

High-altitude research balloons like this NASA balloon over Antarctica have led to many scientific discoveries. Hopefully, fears over spy balloons won’t ground them.

Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility

April 7, 1973 cover of Science News

Twice round the world by Boomerang balloonScience News, April 7, 1973

Scientists recovered for the first time … a balloon scientific payload after a long-duration, twice-around-the-world flight. The project is called Boomerang and is designed to demonstrate the feasibility of using balloons for long-duration research.


Balloons fill an important niche in science, bearing instruments to study physics, atmospheric chemistry and astronomy, or to test technologies for space missions. For instance, data collected by balloons have helped reveal that the universe is geometrically flat, that Earth’s lower atmosphere is rising due to climate change and how wildfire smoke impacts the ozone layer (SN: 10/08/02; SN: 12/18/21; SN: 8/8/19).

Earlier this year, the United States shot down several objects high above the country, one of which is alleged to be a surveillance balloon from China. Others are likely “tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research,” President Joe Biden said February 16 in a news briefing. Some scientists worry rising concerns over spying could limit where high-altitude balloons go — a tall order for vessels that follow the wind.

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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