In 2019, years before a hulking high-altitude Chinese balloon floated across the United States and caused widespread alarm, one of China’s top aeronautics scientists made a proud announcement that received little attention back then: His team had launched an airship more than 60,000 feet into the air and sent it sailing around most of the globe, including across North America.
The scientist, Wu Zhe, told a state-run news outlet at the time that the “Cloud Chaser” airship was a milestone in his vision of populating the upper reaches of the earth’s atmosphere with steerable balloons that could be used to provide early warnings of natural disasters, monitor pollution or carry out airborne surveillance.
“Look, there’s America,” Wu said in an accompanying video, pointing on a computer screen to a red line that appeared to trace the airship’s path across Asia, northern Africa, and near the southern edge of the United States. By the time of the report, it was over the Pacific Ocean.
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