A new HBO documentary premiering this month claims the United States, desperate to beat the Soviet Union to the moon, purchased space technology from former Yugoslavia.
But how could an Eastern European Communist country defy the Soviets without their knowledge? The answer starts with Yugoslavia’s longtime leader, Josip Broz Tito.
Tito was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army during WWI, becoming Austria-Hungary’s youngest Sergeant Major ever. He was captured by the Russians and helped the Red Guard take down the last Czar during the October Revolution. He would later become the leader of the most effective World War II resistance forces fighting Nazi occupation in Yugoslavia. After the war, he became a Communist dictator, but the only one free of Soviet influence.
Very adept at handling the Russians, Tito once wrote to Stalin: “Stop sending people to kill me. We’ve already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle. If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a second.”
In the early days of the Space Race, capturing the technology took money, power, and meant a large return for the ideology that got to the moon first. Once the USSR put the first satellite and then the man in space, the U.S. felt the sting of that early defeat.
A new film, called “Houston, We Have A Problem” alleges that the former Yugoslavia was a secret third player in the Space Race. The Yugoslavians made great technological leaps, based on the 1929 writings of Slovenian Rocket Engineer Herman Potočnik, whose book “The Problems of Space Travel” marked the first discussion of long-term human habitation in space, the first designs for space stations, and the importance of geostationary orbit. The documentary alleges Werner von Braun, the Nazi inventor of the V-2 Rocket and later the Saturn V Rocket for the United States, which carried the Apollo Program to the moon, received unpublished Potočnik diaries captured by Tito after Potočnik’s death.
Tito found the diaries in 1947. After conflicts with Stalin in 1948 where Tito asserted Yugoslav independence, Tito implemented the Yugoslav Space Program. By 1960, the film alleges, the CIA determined that Yugoslavia had developed operation space flight technology based on these writings. In March 1961, the film says Yugoslavia sold its complete space program to the United States. Just two months later, President John F. Kennedy gave the speech that announce the U.S. goal of reaching the moon within the coming decade.The burst of growth in Yugoslavia following the 1960’s is supposed to be (from the filmmakers’ points of view) a result of the influx of currency from the sale of the space race technology. There could be other mitigating circumstances behind that rapid growth. One Canadian researcher believes that growth came the $47 billion in war reparations Yugoslavia received from the former Axis powers. The questions don’t stop there, however.
“The trailer draws a lot of links between events that may or may not have happened in some cases and connects the dots between a number of things that aren’t necessarily connected whatsoever,” Bill Barry, NASA’s Chief Historian, told Radio Free Europe. “There’s a lot of coincidence in time, but just because two things sort of happened one after the other does not necessarily mean that there’s causation involved. There’s a very big stretch involved here.” Barry does acknowledge the influence of Potočnik and his work, however.
The film’s evidence also centers around “Object 505,” a secret Yugoslav Army post on the Croatia-Bosnian border that was Top Secret and inaccessible, even to the top Yugoslav Army brass. The film’s crew visits the still-mysterious installation in the film.
“It was very mysterious and one couldn’t enter it easily,” former Yugoslav Army officer and aviation Lieutenant Ivan Prsa told Radio Free Europe. “Only selected people could enter this underground facility and that’s why it is still unknown to the public.”
This is the director’s original trailer:
In an interview with Radio Free Europe’s Balkan Service, the film’s director, Ziga Virc, tried to downplay some of the more incredulous claims that made his film’s trailer an internet sensation.
“We are in the phase of gathering all the facts, but we still need a lot, a lot of confirmation. We still need a lot of documents and archive-gathering so we can confirm,” Virc said. “I would not like to be too sensational about this topic.”
“Houston, We Have a Problem” is listed by HBO as “docufiction… exploring the myth of the secret multi-billion-dollar deal behind America’s purchase of Yugoslavia’s clandestine space program in the early 1960s.” The film was screened at 2016’s TriBeCa film Festival and will be in select theaters in May 2016.