Just over 8 hours: this was the time that four CIA agents had to disarm, photograph, and reassemble a famous Soviet spacecraft. Without a trace.
This happened about 60 years ago – sometime between 1959 and 1960, but secret agency documents do not make clear a more exact date. The period was one of tension between the United States and the then Soviet Union, involved in a Cold War that, among other developments, led to a real space race.
After putting Sputnik, the first artificial satellite in history, into orbit and sending the dog Laika into space, the Soviets started another ambitious space program called Luna, nicknamed Lunik in the West.
In September 1959, the Luna 2 spacecraft became the first spacecraft to touch the Moon. A month later, Luna 3 made history by photographing the far side of the Moon.
Faced with success, the Soviets decided to embark, between 1959 and 1960, on an international tour to showcase their industrial and economic achievements.
And they included, in the caravan, a space vehicle from the Luna program. But there were doubts as to whether it was a replica of the real model.
“A number of analysts in the American community suspected it could be (the real model), and an operation was put in place to find out,” said the documents on the case revealed to the public by the CIA in 1995 under the title The Kidnapping of Lunik.
On an unidentified day, in an unspecified country, American agents visited the exhibition of the Soviets and managed to reach the ship to verify that it was, in fact, a real probe – but without the engine and other mechanical parts.
However, to make an in-depth analysis, it was necessary to have access to the ship beyond contact at an exhibition – where the machine was heavily guarded by guards.
It was then that a script worthy of cinema was elaborated.
The agents began to monitor the passage of the ship on tour through different cities, looking for an opportunity to intercept the cargo and hijack the probe.
The CIA assumed that Luna was in the last truck in the fleet.
Thus, at a given moment, the American agents, in disguise, managed to stop the car.
“The original driver was escorted to a hotel room, where he spent the night,” said official documents. “The truck was quickly driven (with a new driver) to a warehouse that had been rented for the occasion.”
For 30 minutes, the agents waited in silence and found that “there was no indication that the Soviets suspected anything was wrong.”
It was then that, around 7:30 pm, four experts arrived to collect scientific information.
Disassemble and research
Those involved in the mission knew that Luna had its walls screwed in, making the ceiling the only alternative for them to enter without leaving a trace.
What they did not expect is that, inside the probe, they would have little space to move around. They then had to split up to study the spacecraft in segments.
Illuminating the machinery with hand lanterns, the agents disassembled Luna’s key pieces, took pictures, and took notes. Then they put everything back in place.
“We put our equipment together and were picked up by some cars at 4:00 am”, details one of the revealed documents.
The initial driver of the truck came back, took the car, and drove to the next point as predicted by the Soviets – who apparently never suspected anything.
According to the CIA, “to this day there is no indication that the Soviets are aware that Lunik has been borrowed for one night.”
The information obtained that night proved to be very valuable.
According to a CIA document made public in 1994, it was possible, on the mission, to identify the weight and size of various parts of the probe, such as the engine.
This made it possible to rethink the space technology that had been developed by the United States, which until then had not been as successful as the Soviets.
Still, it would take another decade for the United States to win the space race.
In the following years, it was the Soviet Union that took the first man into space (Yuri Gagarin) and the first woman (Valentina Tereshkova), who conquered the longest orbital flight (5 days) and who made it possible for a human, Alexei Leonov, to perform for the first time a spacewalk.
The great American achievement would take place on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 reached the Moon, prompting Neil Armstrong to take the first step there.
“The Soviet Union did lose the race with the (American) arrival on the Moon, but the continued presence of humans in orbit is largely due to the Soviet and Russian determination to conquer space,” history professor Gerard de Groot, a history professor, told the BBC. The University of St Andrews in the United Kingdom.
Images: Technology Review