GENETRIX (Program)

Was a covert program carried out during the Cold War by the United States Air Force and other agencies to obtain aerial images of Eastern Europe, Soviet Union and China, at a time when high altitude spy planes like the U2 or the first satellites still were not operative. It had its origins in a RAND Corporation study from early 50's.

Genetrix was a very complex program that forced the development of balloons, associated systems and high resolution cameras through a series of complementary projects. The secret nature of the effort made each project to be developed in isolation and highly compartmentalized with each other. Also several public balloon programs were carried out at the same time to help to cover the spying effort.

Genetrix original plan envisioned the launch of near 2500 stratospheric balloons, carrying camera gondolas from Evanton (Scotland), Gardermoen (Norway), Giebelstadt and Oberpfaffenhofen (Germany), and Incirlik (Turkey). The balloons would drift across the Soviet Union on the winter jet stream, covering nearly all of the Soviet land mass. Once clear of Soviet airspace, the gondolas would be cut free of the balloons by radio signals and while descending by parachutes, they would be caught in midair by specially equipped C-119 planes.

After several tests, the Genetrix launches began on January 10, 1956 and spanned for 27 days. During the first two weeks, the loss rate of the balloons was acceptable and the Soviets made no protest but by late January and early February, soviet air defenses were able to shootdown them. At left can be seen one of the intact gondolas recovered being exhibited by the Soviets to the press.

Finally following a strong Soviet protest on Febraury 6, president Eisenhower ordered to stop the balloon launches.

Only 448 of the 2500 balloons planned were launched; of these, only 44 gondolas were successfully recovered providing 13,813 photos which covered 1,116,449 square miles of the USSR and China. From the pictures obtained the only finding of significance was the discovery of a vast nuclear refining facility at Dononovo in Siberia.

The best source on this program is the book "The Moby Dick Project: Reconnaissance Balloons over Russia" by the aerospace historian Curtis Peebles in 1991.

Related Entries