Friday, October 16, 2009

The Great Balloon Hoax

It seems the Balloon Boy obsession is going to continue for some time yet. I'm already sick to death of the Hennes, but I continue to be fascinated by the balloon itself.

As it turns out, the lost boy angle most definitely looks like a hoax. The family released video of the accidental launch and Falcon was no where near the balloon when it took off. There's also a big buzz today over an interview last night where Falcon says he "hid for the show." I don't know how much to make of that. A six year old says a lot of things but it does fit my new theory on their motives.

The only gossip that interested me was that the Dad reportedly called the media before they called 911. A lot of speculation about that, and granted to some extent it falls into the general pattern of attention seeking of the family, but still, why destroy an expensive balloon just for publicity? I'm revising my earlier estimate and now think they probably spent much less than 100K, but nonetheless they have a lot of time invested and I have to think they spent in the tens of thousands of dollars. So what purpose would it serve?

It suddenly dawned on me a few minutes ago. If they're testing an experimental balloon, they would want video of the flight. That wouldn't be so easy to get on their own. Sure they could have chased the thing on the ground, but you can't count on constant visual contact from the ground so aerial footage like this would be invaluable. That's not something you could get on the cheap, and maybe not at all, as a private citizen. You would probably even get in trouble for launching without FAA permission. I heard they had to ground flights at a commercial airport at one point.

So voila. "Accidental" launch. Lost kid drama. Helicopter chase crews. It adds up to great documentation of your experimental craft's performance. It's the only thing that makes sense to me. [h/t SoBeale for CNN video]

Update: A commenter questioned my cost estimate on the construction of the balloon. I admit I could still be way off, but it's not really material to the point of why obtaining the aerial footage would be valuable to the project. I left links to additional info in comments, if anyone feels like figuring it out.

[More posts daily at The Detroit News]
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Blogger (O)CT(O)PUS said...

The story that refuses to go away ... wait for the DA shoe to drop, i.e. an investigation.

But that still doesn't exonerate CNN (keeping pounding on them, I say)

4:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Sam Kaufman said...

hoax or not, the balloon boy gave his parents a heck of a lot of publicity in return for minimal effort on their part

3:01:00 AM  
Blogger Libby Spencer said...

I'm afraid this story will be usurping the real news for a while yet 8pus.

Sam, it worked out as a brilliant PR stunt. Be interesting to see if they get away with it. I'm feeling rather certain it was a deliberate hoax at this point, but innocent till proven guilty I guess. I'm just theorizing right now.

8:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Rachel said...

Oh, this story just gets stranger and stranger. It looks from the first video that clearly they didn't mean to let the video take off in the first place. But, once it did, they had to do SOMETHING. I mean, there goes a very pricy balloon taking off in the air.

I thought the spectical on the Today show yesterday was absolutely sickening.

If nothingl else this family just needs to go away.

11:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Rachel said...

That should say "didn't mean to let the balloon take off in the first place." oy.

11:48:00 AM  
Blogger Libby Spencer said...

LOL Rachel. Don't sweat the typos. For myself, I don't think it's so clear that they didn't mean to let it launch. Granted my years of experience are with hot air balloons, not helium, but if you want to do a tether lift with hot air, you tether to the ground, to an immovable object. You don't just hold the ropes. I would think that would be more true with a balloon that doesn't have a pilot.

Just speculating of course, but it does strike me as a very odd and easily preventable "accident."

12:00:00 PM  
Anonymous RSR said...

just wondering about the cost analysis: some MIT students did a weather balloon edge of space photography setup for $150 (according to - )

The test flight video idea is interesing, although I have to admit the idea that losing the balloon (and investment) might have been enough to get them to make up a story so law enforcement would track and catch the balloon is exceptionally devious...and intriguing.

12:29:00 PM  
Blogger Libby Spencer said...

RSR - total guess on the cost. No idea what mylar costs these days, or the price of helium, but there's a lot of panels in that design. It would have taken significant man hours to assemble that many seams, so I'm factoring that as a cost too. I could be way off and maybe they didn't care about the cost.

But I'm convinced that getting aerial footage of the test flight would be invaluable to developing the design. And again, I'm not sure they would have been able to obtain FAA permission to launch it at all without some kind of piloting device. With the potential altitude it could reach, it's a hazard to other aircraft and you'll recall they had difficulty tracking it on radar, apparently because of the mylar.

None of this can be proven of course, but it sounds to me, based solely on the news coverage I saw, that the balloon was ready to be tested and I can't think of a better reason to perpetrate such an elaborate hoax.

2:25:00 PM  
Blogger Libby Spencer said...

Did a quick search that leads me to believe the balloon could have been constructed relatively cheaply. For anyone who enjoys mathematical calculations I found these specs for a much smaller project, that also notes the FAA restrictions. If anyone figures it out, please do leave an estimate in comments. In any event, the cost of the balloon isn't really material to why aerial footage of the flight would be valuable to the project.

For balloon enthusiasts, I also ran across this really fun site about cluster ballooning. I had no idea that there were people making manned flights with "toy" balloons outside of the two lawn chair guys.

3:46:00 PM  

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