A balloon recreation shows off first attempt at an air force

Saturday - 6/11/2011, 2:25pm EDT

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People watch as the balloon inflates on the National Mall, near the Air and Space Museum. (Max Smith/WTOP Photo)

WASHINGTON - The National Air and Space Museum recreated a key moment in the nation's first attempt to build an air force, by inflating a balloon on the National Mall.

In June 1861, Thaddeus Lowe flew 500 feet above the National Mall in a gas-filled balloon to show President Abraham Lincoln how balloons could be used to spy on the Confederates during the Civil War.

"He went up to about 500 feet on June 18, 1861, and he sent the first telegram ever sent from the air," says Smithsonian flight historian Tom Crouch.

Eventually, the Union had a fleet of seven balloons with a corps of nine civilian aeronauts. The Confederates soon followed with a balloon of their own.

However, the National Park Service won't let the balloon fly during Saturday's demonstration.

The museum also has photographs and Lowe's binoculars on display. A piece of the Confederate Gazelle balloon and other equipment is on view at the museum's annex in northern Virginia.

The event runs until 3 p.m. Saturday.

WTOP's Max Smith and the Associated Press's Brett Zongker contributed to this report.

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