Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Lunik: in the CIA’s daring plot to steal a Soviet satellite

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The documents contained some details of the secrets gleaned from the mission: “In secret, we were able to acquire detailed data on the upper stage rocket vehicle… the Lunik stage which mates directly with the Soviet ICBM. ” After discovering the weights of the propellant tanks and payload, the United States could reverse-engineer the vehicle’s performance.

It’s still unclear exactly which space probe was sitting in the lumberyard that night. Silveti surmised that he flew Luna 3, the exact spacecraft that photographed the other side of the moon. But it is physically impossible: the machine was not built to withstand re-entry. According to Gunter Krebs, historian and space flight physicist, at the time of the heist, Luna 3 was probably circling Earth at a distance of 310,000 miles, being gradually drawn into Earth’s atmosphere. According to Jonathan McDowell, the Harvard astrophysicist, what they probably stole was one of the Luna 2 spacecraft that had not been part of a successful launch.

The stolen information arrived at the right time. Only a few months after Luna’s caper, the United States managed to orbit a CORONA spy satellite 17 times around the Earth. “Finally, after many, many failures, they made it work,” McDowell says. “It was a very, very big step forward… and it completely transformed the arms race.” On August 19, 1960, another CORONA satellite returned a capsule to Earth, where it was seized by an Air Force aircraft during a mid-flight maneuver called aerial snatch.

Inside the probe was a 20-pound reel of Kodak film capturing 1.65 million square kilometers of Soviet territory, including footage of Soviet air bases. CORONA images were low resolution, McDowell says, so accessing the Luna helped the CIA know exactly which rockets they were looking at. “Because you actually saw the damn thing and held it in your hands,” he said.

“The Air Force said, ‘we need tens of thousands of missiles.’ And the CIA came and said, ‘We counted the missiles from the Russians and it’s not as bad as we thought.’

“We are used to seeing the CIA as the bad guys, right?” McDowell said. “But, you know, the Air Force was like, ‘Oh, we need tens of thousands of missiles.’ And the CIA came and said, “We counted the Russian missiles and it’s not as bad as we thought.” Schoolchildren were no longer hiding under their desks, as the duck and blanket program was phased out.

The Cold War lasted for decades, sometimes bringing America to the brink of nuclear war. But the United States quickly took the lead in the race for the moon. On May 5, 1961, NASA launched its Freedom 7 spacecraft, sending America’s first astronaut into space, Alan Shepard. Winston Scott’s adopted son, Michael, told me he had always been intrigued by a signed photograph of Shepard he found in his father’s papers.

As for Luna 3, the actual probe that photographed the far side of the moon, its whereabouts are “not entirely clear,” Krebs, the space historian, wrote to me. Some time before 1962, he added, it would have re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and melted into a huge fireball.

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