‘That could be one of our balloons’: Hobbyist says downed object may belong to amateur club

U.S. officials still haven’t said what the three objects were, but President Joe Biden said Thursday they were “most likely balloons” connected to either private companies or involving scientific research.

“When I heard that [it was a] silver object with a payload attached to it, that could be one of our balloons,” a member of the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade told POLITICO in a phone interview. The member was granted anonymity because the group has agreed not to talk to the media.

Government officials have reached out to some of the hobby group’s members, the person said. On Thursday, a spokesperson for the North American Aerospace Defense Command said the FBI had contacted the club but did not provide more details. The FBI did not return a request to comment.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Friday that the U.S. can’t confirm reports that the balloon belongs to the club. “We haven’t recovered it so it’s very difficult until you can get your hands on something to be able to tell,” he said. “I mean we all have to accept the possibility that we may not be able to recover it.”

For months, the hobby group tracked its balloon using an antenna attached to the craft, using GPS to estimate where it was. Based on their data, the balloon should have been over Alaska when it went offline.

But hundreds, if not thousands, of objects are floating in that jet stream at any given time, so no one can be sure what was shot down unless you “go through the Yukon and trudge through the snow,” the member said.

“Think about it. We know where the balloon was off the coast of Alaska. We know where it was, if all was well,” the member said. “We know that it didn’t wake up that morning. We know [American forces] shot something down, and the thing they described as having shot down is not inconsistent with what we’re flying out there. So, that’s that.”

Balloons flown by the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade are no different from the $10 to $15 balloons children buy for parties, the person said. They’re not specifically designed for scientific purposes. The Sidewinder missile used by the Air Force to shoot down the object over the Yukon costs roughly $400,000.

“Unless it has Mickey Mouse ears and F-22 pilots got sharp eyes and can discern that, it’s not clear exactly what you’re looking at. But the point is that it is not at all a huge reach,” to assume it’s the group’s balloon, the member said.

Kirby said the U.S. stands by the decision to shoot down the objects.

“Given the situation we were in, the information available, the recommendation of our military commanders, it was exactly the right thing to do at exactly the right time,” he said.

“And, frankly, given the circumstances in light of what happened with the spy balloon, wouldn’t that be a better outcome, if it turns out that they were in fact, civilian, or recreational use, or weather balloon and therefore benign, which is what the intelligence community thinks,” Kirby added. “Isn’t that a better outcome than to have to … to think about the possibility of greater threats to our national security?”

While it’s unfortunate that the balloon is missing, the person said it’s better for the U.S. to be safe than sorry when it comes to protecting its airspace.

“I’m an American and I don’t want anything bad to happen to our country. If they don’t know, I’d rather that they err in shooting down $100 worth of balloon stuff than have something bad go over Canada or the United States,” the member said, adding that they’re “not angry at all.”

Kelly Garrity, Lee Hudson and Lawrence Ukenye contributed to this report.