Marketing a city is a tall task. Leadership must highlight all the city offers travelers while showing those looking to relocate that they can make a buck and raise a family. So, in 1986, one city conducted an eye-catching publicity stunt.
More specifically, a local charity organized a community effort to shatter a world record and bring national attention to the up-and-coming town. Unfortunately, complications and bad decisions turned the event into a disastrous spectacle…
In 1986, the United Way charity of Cleveland, Ohio, devised a brilliant fundraising and publicity event. The plan was a simple one, centered around gathering colorful balloons. Easy enough, right?
United Way planned to break the Guinness World Record for most simultaneously released balloons. Disneyland in Anaheim held the then-current record of 1.2 million, set the year before, below. Could that record be broken?
Elaine Isaacson / Orange County Register
Organizers of the event—including Treb Heining, a balloon artist, below—hoped so, but they also had greater ambitions for the stunt. They wanted to earn the city of Cleveland much-deserved recognition.
“I think this [event],” Treb told the local news, “is a prime example of what United Way is trying to do in terms of saying, ‘Cleveland, it’s your time. It’s time to say yes; it’s time to say it is a happening city.'” A noble goal, indeed.
John Kuntz / The Plain Dealer
So starting in March of ’86, Treb, United Way, and Cleveland started collecting permits upon permits and hammering out logistics. Finally, on September 27th, the potentially record-breaking day arrived.
Thom Sheridan / Flickr; Ballooniversity
Organizers suspended a net a city block long above Public Square in Cleveland’s downtown, which held the helium-inflated balloons. Over 2,000 volunteers from all over the city gathered underneath.
The volunteers spent hours filling up balloon after balloon, hoping to reach 2 million and shatter the record set by Disneyland. Shortly after the effort began, though, the disasters started piling up…
The Atlantic / YouTube
Volunteers filling up and tying two or three balloons every minute for hours straight accumulated blisters all over their fingers—many required bandages on their hands. Others faced worse problems.
One woman, for example, had tied a collection of balloons to her wristwatch, only to watch the helium-filled balloons eventually carry her jewelry away. And worst of all? Grey skies loomed on the horizon.
United Way called for an early release to make sure that the balloons weren’t hampered by rain. Only 1.5 million had been filled by 1:50 p.m., but that was still enough for the record. So, giddy, volunteers pulled back the net…
The Atlantic / YouTube
At first, the balloons dazzled the crowd looking on. Blue, red, green, and yellow balloons swirled upward in a gorgeous display. “It was beautiful,” one spectator said. “It looked like confetti going up.” But the joy lasted only briefly.
Thom Sheridan / Flickr
You see, the plan, as United Way saw it, was for the balloons to float up, disperse, then biodegrade. That plan looked like a success as the balloons wrapped around Terminal Tower, below. Then the storm rolled in.
Thom Sheridan / Flickr
A cold front pushed the balloons back towards the ground, where some clogged the streets of downtown Cleveland. Others littered the runway at Burke Lakefront Airport, grounding all flights. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
See, the Coast Guard had been out on Lake Eerie all morning, looking for two missing fishermen after their small boat washed up without them. But mid-search, stray, storm-swept balloons descended on the water.
There, bobbing like bright buoys in the water, the balloons littered the water. This made the Coast Guard’s search for the 40-year-olds, Skip Sullivan and Raymond Broderick, nearly impossible…
The Atlantic / YouTube
Imagine trying to find a head or spotting a life jacket in waters filled with brightly colored spheres. “It’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” one searching Coast Guardsman said. For two days, the Guard found no signs of the men.
Two days later, both men washed up on shore, dead. Their wives sued United Way, arguing their husbands might have been found, was it not the fundraiser. This was one of many lawsuits the balloons caused.
As weeks passed, popped and deflated balloons washed up all over the Eerie shorelines, even in Canada. The event was an unmitigated disaster—but at least they had the record, right?
Wrong. Guinness refused to recognize United Way’s record-setting event. The organization couldn’t allow death, destruction, and poor organization to taint their record books — so Anaheim kept the record.
United Way’s fundraising event failed, though they did bring publicity to Cleveland, whatever that was worth. As of 34 years later, the charity, thankfully, has no plans to re-attempt a balloon launch. The U.S. is more prepared to handle such a disaster nowadays.
We know NASA best for launching astronauts and satellites into orbit. So would it surprise you to learn that a team of their scientists is studying models of a apocolyptic New York City? This is no side project, either; they’re deadly serious.
The man behind this peculiar mission is Lindley Johnson. A 23-year veteran of the Air Force, he joined NASA’s ranks in 2003. Ever since, his mind has mostly been fixated on the end of the world.
But don’t worry — Lindley is no crackpot. He’s not urging on the apocalypse, but rather approaching it from an analytical standpoint. Lindley serves as NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, so nobody is better equipped to take on doomsday than he.
While humanity does a pretty good job of endangering itself on a daily basis, Lindley doesn’t worry about terrestrial threats. He’s more concerned with space rocks. Granted, most meteorites that come down to Earth are pretty small, or even microscopic.
However, what if an asteroid — say, one that is multiple football fields in diameter — was hurtling toward our planet? Odds are pretty good that it would land in the middle of the ocean, but Lindley wants more than luck on his side.
That’s why his NASA team investigates (hypothetical) cases of giant asteroids hitting densely urban areas. Thousands of years typically pass between such catastrophic events, but Lindley intends to be ready at any point.
After all, Earth’s geography proves just how destructive a collision can be. NASA certainly doesn’t wish to see Midtown Manhattan turned into a crater, but they are interested in exactly how far that damage would spread.
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Lindley’s team continually runs simulations to get a better idea of where asteroids are most likely to strike, plus what kind of damage we can expect. In some cases, a collision may be inevitable. But Earth isn’t totally helpless.
For years, Lindley and his colleagues were operating on a shoestring budget. Fortunately, a 2015 audit convinced Congress just how essential planetary defense could be. They immediately buffed up Lindley’s annual spending power from $5 million to $50 million.
Los Angeles Times
With more resources on his side than he ever imagined, Lindley has led the charge against galactic peril. His NASA team assembled an arsenal of data and cutting-edge technology to keep asteroids at bay.
NASA keeps this fact on the down-low, but they’ve cataloged over 2,000 asteroids in our solar system capable of obliterating an entire continent. Blowing up such a massive rock might cause too much fallout, so Lindley has other tricks up his sleeve.
The most promising method to redirect an asteroid is through the use of kinetic impactors. These unmanned spacecraft would crash into an asteroid at high speed, thus deflecting it away from our planet. Think of it as a game of high-stakes billiards.
With all due respect to fans of Armageddon, Lindley doesn’t believe that landing on an asteroid would be the most effective solution. Still, NASA hasn’t taken that option off the table.
Astronauts have trained for complex asteroid landings, though nobody has ever attempted the feat. NASA foresees this operation more as a way to collect mineral samples, but there’s always the chance they’ll go full Michael Bay in an emergency.
NASA has a selection of hypothetical fixes to choose from, though they’re also ramping up their asteroid prevention in more concrete ways. For instance, they’ve installed more orbital telescopes to monitor any life-threatening space rocks in the solar system.
The capability to spot catastrophe coming could be the most important factor in the end. Most deflection techniques require months or years to mobilize, so a few days notice won’t help at all. The good news is that NASA isn’t alone in this fight.
Lindley’s team ran exercises with FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — to prepare for collateral damage from a collision. “They are a great way for us to learn how to work together and meet each other’s needs,” Lindley explained.
Twitter / Buzzfeed News
In 2019, Lindley also organized a conference with the European Space Agency and the International Asteroid Warning Network. Working together, they’ll have eyes on the sky all over the world.
While it seems unlikely that we’ll have to deal with an impending apocalypse, civilization is better prepared than ever. That news will only disappoint doomsday preppers, who may very well have stocked up their bunkers for nothing.
In spite of the life-or-death consequences of his job, Lindley says he sleeps just fine at night. It’s just another day at NASA. Besides, Lindley can name plenty of colleagues who have responsibilities that might be even more trying than his own.
Lindley likely couldn’t handle George Aldrich’s job. When George’s teacher told him to “shoot for the stars” as a child, he took that advice pretty literally. Fast forward several decades, and he’s caught way more than just a whiff of success at NASA.
Reddit / inverse
Growing up in New Mexico, George watched his dad fly up the Navy ranks and join the coveted Blue Angels. He always dreamed of reaching such soaring heights, and so he looked for a heroic job as soon as he finished high school.
George started a bit smaller. He volunteered for the local fire department, and his recent chemistry and mathematics experience piqued the interest of the chief. He signed up George for a special task on the force.
While he didn’t extinguish many infernos, George stood out on the department’s odor panel. By training his sense of smell, he could sense problems like gas leaks before they had a chance to ignite. Soon, George realized he was meant for bigger and better things.
In 1974, his chief recommended that George take his talents to the next level. NASA had a firm presence in the area, so perhaps, George figured, he could secure a position there. At the same time, not just anybody could waltz in and apply to be an astronaut.
After the Apollo 1 disaster — in which a technical function aboard a shuttle killed all three crew members aboard — NASA was taking safety seriously. They needed staff who could prevent disasters most people would never see coming.
After sending in his application, George had to take a strenuous exam to see if he was made of the right stuff. Hours later, he set his pencil down and headed home, waiting for a phone call that would make or break his dreams.
Then the good news came in: NASA told George to report to the White Sands Test Facility immediately, where he would begin his new role as a Chemical Specialist. But what exactly did that mean?
Well, if you asked George about his job, he would describe himself as a “Nasalnaut” or the “Chief Sniffer.” That’s because his real responsibilities boil down to smelling anything that NASA sends into space.
Odd as it sounds, George’s role makes sense. Astronauts go into space for long periods of time, stuck in close quarters, breathing in recirculated air. The last thing command wants is any harmful odors or substances traveling along with them, smelling up the shuttle.
NASA / Don Pettit
That’s precisely where George and his team come in. They personally inspect the smell of every piece of cargo and gear to make sure everything is ship-shape. Of course, nobody has been sniffing for longer than George.
He holds the NASA record for the most official sniffs, with his number approaching one thousand. Naturally, George’s system is more nuanced than just judging a scent as good or bad.
The odor panel blindly scrutinizes each object, so their everyday conceptions about the items won’t cloud their judgment. From there, the sniffers rank everything on a scale from 0-4. If something scores higher than 2.5, they suggest leaving it on Earth.
Between tests, George might cleanse his palate, so to speak, using a trick developed by perfumers. He simply resets his nostrils by smelling the back of his own hand, which is sometimes called “going home.” And his work has likely saved lives.
A manned space mission involves so many complex chemical reactions, that NASA cannot risk any toxic materials sneaking aboard. The astronauts themselves may not be able to detect it, so they require an expert nose to do it for them — and more.
Much of the time, the most problematic materials aren’t what you would expect. George has found that old-fashioned camera film, for example, can be surprisingly toxic. Meanwhile, other items can just get downright disgusting.
Something as basic as velcro can stink up an entire space shuttle. George once determined that while separate velcro straps have no real odor, together they can produce an unbearably pungent smell. But not every scent can be swept away.
George says that when it comes down to it, humans really stink, and there’s not much NASA can do about it. Because of basic functions like sweating and going to the bathroom, astronauts need to learn to live with a little odor.
After 44 years, George is still going strong. He estimates that he’s only ever missed two tests — due to sickness — over his entire career. You could say he wrote the book on odor testing, and he’s definitely smelled that book as well.