The United States’ dramatic takedown of what it has called a Chinese surveillance balloon started with a few civilian sightings in America’s heartland and ended with a missile explosion over South Carolina so loud that it rattled homes below.
Although it’s not the first time a spy balloon has been spotted by U.S. officials, this latest one has become the center of a diplomatic dispute that could set back dialogue between Washington and Beijing, said John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in South Korea who recently wrote a book about Cold War-era U.S. espionage in China.
“It’s hard to know how long this is going to play out diplomatically,” he said, noting that Pentagon officials have indicated the balloon would not be more effective for information gathering than a satellite. “But now that this has gotten so big, whatever the intention, the effect is that this pushes the issue of surveillance to the forefront of U.S.-China relations.”
Here’s a timeline of what happened.
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Saturday, Jan. 28: The balloon entered American airspace, flying in around the southern tip of Alaska. It then crossed north of the Aleutian Islands and over the state’s mainland. At this point, U.S. officials had not publicly acknowledged the balloon or its presence in the United States.
Monday, Jan. 30: The balloon entered Canadian airspace.
Tuesday, Jan. 31: The balloon floated back into U.S. airspace over northern Idaho. U.S. officials considered shooting it down, The Washington Post reported, but planners couldn’t mitigate the risk to people on the ground.
Wednesday, Feb. 1: The balloon flew over Montana, near Malmstrom Air Force Base, home to several nuclear missile silos. It was spotted by civilians and recorded by Chase Doak, who captured on video from his driveway what he later described as a “big, round disc in the sky” around 5:30 p.m. Billings Logan International Airport temporarily shut down over the balloon, grounding several flights.
President Biden authorized a takedown “as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin would later say in a statement. Secretary of State Antony Blinken summoned the senior-most official at the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
Thursday, Feb. 2: U.S. officials disclosed to the public that the balloon had been flying over the mainland United States for several days. Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters it was traveling at an altitude “well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
Friday, Feb. 3: The balloon was spotted by civilians as it flew over Kansas and Missouri. China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the “airship” was a weather balloon that had strayed from its intended course into the United States “due to the influence of westerly winds and its limited control capacity,” adding that “China regrets that the airship strayed into the United States by mistake.”
Blinken postponed his visit to Beijing hours before he was scheduled to depart, telling China’s foreign affairs chief that the “surveillance balloon” had “undermined” the purpose of the trip, according to State Department spokesman Ned Price.
In response, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry accused some politicians and media organizations of having “hyped” the incident to “smear China.”
The North American Aerospace Defense Command said on Friday that it was tracking a balloon in Canada that was thought to be of Chinese origin. Another Chinese spy balloon was also spotted over Latin America on Friday, the Pentagon confirmed.
Saturday, Feb. 4: The U.S. military shot down the balloon as it hovered over the Atlantic Ocean off the South Carolina coast, using a missile fired from an F-22 Raptor. The balloon had been flying about 60,000 to 65,000 feet high. The Federal Aviation Administration ordered ground stops for flights in parts of North Carolina and South Carolina shortly before shooting down the balloon.
The same day, U.S. officials disclosed that the balloon’s path had taken it over several U.S. military installations, The Post reported, and that the administration had taken steps to stop it from collecting information that could undermine national security.
Video of the takedown shows the missile approaching the balloon in clear blue skies as spectators cheer and shout, “Get it!”
The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima, Alex Horton, Dan Lamothe and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.