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That time the US stole a Soviet satellite

On an undisclosed night in 1959 or 1960, four CIA agents grabbed their cameras, stripped off their shoes, and climbed into the sexiest thing to ever come out of Soviet Russia during the Cold War: the Luna.


When the night was over, the Soviets were none the wiser and America was sitting on a trove of details about the Russian satellite program.

The opportunity came when the Soviet Union, hoping to tout its technological and economic might, planned a traveling road show that would show off its greatest achievements. Since it had launched the world's first two satellites and was a pioneer in nuclear technology, people were willing to let the road show in.

The Soviet space program was the pioneer in the first few years of the space race. After launching the first two man-made satellites, Russia began working on the Luna spacecraft, pictured, which were designed to impact the moon. (Photo: Russian Archives)

And America wanted a ticket. Agents went to one of the stops to see if maybe, just maybe, the satellite model was actually a real, production satellite. They managed to get to the Luna while it sat, alone and unguarded, in an undisclosed exhibition hall for 24 hours.

The agents learned that the Luna on tour was very much a real satellite; it just wasn't carrying an engine or certain electronic parts. But it was still a production satellite with markings that would indicate what companies had manufactured parts, and studying it could give Americans a better idea of its capabilities.

And so the CIA wanted to get a better look. When they checked the upcoming tour dates, another visit in an exposition was ruled out because the Soviets were expected to man a 24-hour guard at most future locations. But, there was no guard scheduled while the displays were in transit.

The Luna 3 photographed the far side of the moon in 1959, about the same time that one of its sister satellites was stripped down and photographed by the CIA. (Photo: Soviet government)

The CIA first went for hijacking a train, hopefully by shunting it off the main tracks and onto a side lane with a warehouse, but the agency didn't have adequate resources on the rail line to pull it off. That left the possibility of hijacking the truck that took the satellite to the rail yard.

Agents started by getting the Luna scheduled for the last truck out of the fairground after a display. Then, they kept an eye on the Russians in the rail yard and the fairground as well as vehicle traffic on the roads.

The vehicle checker in the rail yard had no way of talking to colleagues at the fairground, so he was unlikely to know how many trucks were supposed to be coming and going, and CIA cars shadowing the truck saw no signs of a Soviet escort.

And so the Americans pounced, forcing the truck to stop and sending the original driver to hang out overnight in a hotel (no word on how they kept him occupied, so we're going to assume alcohol and other party favors were involved).

Then they used another driver to move the truck to a salvage yard rented for just this purpose. Cars from the CIA station patrolled the area around the yard to ensure no one came knocking.

Four agents went into the yard with portable lights, cameras, metric wrenches, and other tools. They quickly set to removing the roof of the massive crate, 20 feet long, 11 feet wide, and 14 feet tall at the peak.

Then, they lowered ladders into the crate and began photographing the satellite. They removed their shoes to prevent leaving scuff marks on the device. They photographed the payload, a large orb with an attached antenna, as well as all the present electronics and many of the attachments.

Luna satellite schematic as drawn by the CIA. (Image: CIA)

A team opened the engine compartment by removing 130 bolts and then got into the payload basket by cutting a wire with a stamped plastic seal. As the main team photographed the items underneath, cars raced the wire and seal back to the station to get copies made.

In a short time, the agents copied down all relevant data from the engine compartment, nose section, and even the payload basket while taking detailed photos of the same. A roll of film was developed inside one of the cars to make sure that all photo equipment had worked properly.

By then, the replacement seal had arrived and the agents got the whole thing put back together inside its crate. A little after 4 a.m., the original driver was sent back to his truck and he delivered it to the rail yard where no Soviets were present. When the rail checker arrived at 7 a.m., he saw the waiting truck and had the Luna loaded on the train.

As far as the CIA could tell, the Soviets were none the wiser. America was able to identify the major company producing the Luna and at least three companies that produced components for it.