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  • Writer's pictureAeryn Avilla

That Time the CIA Stole a Soviet Lunar Probe

Despite the multitude of accomplishments the United States would achieve in space by the end of 1969, ten years prior it was so far behind the Soviet Union some doubted the country would ever catch up. It was clear that desperate times required desperate measures. Fueled by the Sputnik Crisis, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) kept President Dwight D. Eisenhower aware of the Soviet's leaps and bounds in space. Determined to win the arms race, the Space Race, and the peace race, the CIA decided to stage a heist to capture and inspect a Soviet spacecraft a.

1959 Soviet postcard depicting the Luna 3 spacecraft

1959 Soviet postcard depicting Luna 3 reading "the creative forces of socialism— boundless!" (source)

The Soviet Union's Luna program (or Lunik in the west) was a series of robotic spacecraft destined for the moon. Luna consisted of six different types of missions: impacts, flybys, soft landings, orbiting, roving, and sample returning. Twenty-four missions under the name Luna flew between 1959 and 1976, fifteen of which were successful (for an overall program success rate of 62.5%). Those that failed to reach orbit were not publicly acknowledged by the Soviet Union, very keen on maintaining its image as the leader in space exploration. Those that remained in low Earth orbit were given Kosmos designations. Below is a list of the most noteworthy missions.

  • Luna 1 - flyby - January 1959: The first spacecraft to reach the moon

  • Luna 2 - impactor - September 1959: The first spacecraft to land on the moon (east of Mare Serenitatis, or the Sea of Serenity)

  • Luna 3 - flyby - October 1959: The first spacecraft to return photographs of the moon's far side

  • Luna 9 - soft lander - February 1966: The first spacecraft to achieve a lunar soft landing

  • Luna 10 - orbiter - April 1966: The first spacecraft to orbit the moon; first artificial object to orbit any celestial body besides Earth

  • Luna 16 - sample return - September 1970: The first robotic probe to return a lunar sample to Earth

  • Luna 17 - rover - November 1970: The first robotic rover, Lunokhod 1, on the moon

Slideshow of the aforementioned Luna spacecraft

Between 1959 and 1960, the Soviet Union sent an exhibition of several artifacts highlighting its industrial and technological achievements to a number of communist-aligned countries to flaunt its global prestige. Among the collection was a replica of Sputnik, which the entire world was familiar with by now, and a spacecraft very similar to Luna 2 complete with its upper stage. The CIA learned that on November 21, this exhibition was headed to the Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City, though the exact date and location of this now-infamous night in space history were never revealed. Sometime in late 1959 or early 1960, a handful of inconspicuous agents left Langley, Virginia for the capital of Mexico, where they found a very welcome surprise.

The agents initially thought the lunar spacecraft on display was a model like its traveling companions— surely the Soviets weren't gutsy or careless enough to send a real spacecraft on a world tour. Upon closer inspection after-hours, though, they learned the specimen behind glass was the real deal. The object was heavily guarded by Soviet soldiers at all times while in the museum, but not once it left the building for transportation to the next city. CIA operatives witnessed the artifacts being placed in plain, unmarked crates and loaded into trucks before being driven to a train station. There was little coordination between the guards and truck drivers and the guards were not provided with a list of what deliveries to expect. They never actually checked what was inside each crate before loading it onto the train either.

Drawing of Luna featured in the 1961 CIA report on the caper (CIA)
Drawing of Luna featured in the 1961 CIA report on the caper (CIA)

What the CIA's plan lacked in cool gadgets and fast cars it made up for in simplicity. The night of the caper, the team of four agents in plain clothes followed the truck carrying the crate away from the Auditorio Nacional. They pulled the vehicle over in transit to the train station and escorted the driver to a nearby hotel. The agents drove the truck to a nearby salvage yard, noted in documentation to have been chosen for its high walls, protecting the truck from being spotted. After loitering for thirty minutes, making sure the missing truck went unnoticed by the Soviets, the men got to work. Since they were unable to pull the item out of its 20-foot-long, 11-foot-wide, 14-foot-deep (6-meter-long, 3.3-meter-wide, 4.2-meter-deep) crate, they took off their shoes and using rope ladders, lowered themselves into the box. They immediately came across a small, plastic seal with the Soviet insignia that would need to be broken in order to reveal the spacecraft. Breaking this seal, however, would also reveal the foreign interference to the Soviets. Fortunately for the team, they located another member of the CIA in the area who could deliver a replacement seal by morning. Agents were able to disassemble, photograph, and reassemble Luna (the bigger challenge) in a few hours, measuring and weighing the pieces of the lunar spacecraft (minus the engine, which had been removed by the Soviets prior). By 5 o'clock the next morning, the original unwitting driver was reunited with his truck and by some miracle, arrived at the train station, the artifact fully intact and resealed, before the arrival of the first Soviet guard at 7.

This infamous incident was an important intelligence victory for the US because it provided the country with new information regarding the Soviet space program and its capabilities. America no longer "operated under the looming anxiety of the Sputnik crisis" caused by a lack of information, and this new confidence allowed it to catch up to and later (in some aspects) surpass the Soviets (Hollings, 2021). Although this incredibly risky caper was an astonishing success, let us be reminded that if the CIA had gotten caught, the Cold War would've turned hot...

Far side of the moon taken by the Soviet Luna 3 spacecraft in 1959

The first image of the far side of the moon, captured by Luna 3 in 1959 (NASA)

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a Spoken by Peter Bull as Russian Ambassador Alexei de Sadesky in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (directed by Stanley Kubrick, released in 1964)

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