Stealing A Satellite

In the early days of the Space Race, the Soviet Union was making bold moves putting itself far ahead of the United States. With the successful launch of the first satellite—Sputnik 1—in October of 1957 followed up by the launching of the first animal into Earth orbit a month later—Sputnik 2—the United States was in trouble of falling further and further behind with each successful Russian launch.

Sputnik

Sputnik 1 replica.

However, an opportunity in late 1959 presented itself that the United States government could not resist. The Soviet Union, flexing its muscle for the world, put on a traveling exhibition of its hardware and vehicles that included the Sputnik and Lunik satellites. American operatives gathered whatever limited intelligence they could throughout the exhibition, but it was determined that a closer look was needed at the Lunik satellite and its launching vehicle.

After a bit of reconnaissance, a plan was devised. Like something out of Ocean’s 11 (or 8 depending which Ocean you prefer) CIA operatives decided that they were going to “kidnap” the Lunik on its route from one destination to the next. The plan was simple enough, hijack the truck carrying the satellite, pull it over to a nondescript location, dissect it, then return it back to the tour the next day before the Soviets ever found out.

The whole plan was recounted by Sydney Wesley Finer in redacted CIA documents made public in 1967. In those documents, CIA operatives determined the most opportune moment to hijack the satellite. On a particularly non-descript evening, the Lunik, packed in a crate 20 feet long, 11 feet wide, and 14 feet deep, was loaded onto a truck to make the trek to the next location on the tour. Shortly after leaving the fairgrounds, when it was determined the coast was clear, disguised CIA agents pulled the truck over, switched drivers (escorting the original Russian driver to a local motel) and took the now hijacked satellite to a local salvage yard, they had rented for the occasion.

When Lunik was safe at the undisclosed salvage yard, all proceedings were stopped until it was verified the Soviets were none the wiser. Determining the coast was clear, the operation of dissecting the satellite began in earnest. A team of four men immediately went to work. As it turns out, kidnapping the satellite might have been the easiest part. Trouble began from the start with the Lunik’s shipping crate. Bolted from the inside, the only way into the massive crate was going to be from the top. With little room to maneuver, and the need to leave the crate as intact as possible, the crew eventually managed to remove the lid.

With Lunik’s launching vehicle now exposed, two of the men, armed with cameras, shimmied their way to the back of the crate, while the other two photographed the nose, inward. The men removed the inspection windows from the nose of the craft to get better pictures of the payload orb. The team at the tail of the craft ran into disappointment quickly. The engine of the craft had been removed. But, all was not lost. The engine mounts, fuel, and oxidizer tanks were all still remained in place. It would eventually prove to be enough information for the US government to back into the engine size upon later examination.

lunik cia diagram

Meanwhile, the team at the nose of the craft ran into trouble of their own. A simple plastic Soviet seal was impeding progress to the satellite itself. Applied to where the Lunik was housed within the launching vehicle, a cut of the seal would be a dead giveaway that there was tampering. Acting quickly, the team contacted higher-ups. It was confirmed that local agents could easily replicate the seal in time for them to have the satellite back on the road. With that confirmation, the seal was broken, and the orb was removed from its compartment to be photographed in its entirety.

After a few hours, the Lunik and its carrying vehicle were completely dissected and photographed. All that remained was to backtrack through their footsteps and put it all back together in time for the early morning rendezvous at the satellite’s next checkpoint on the tour. Of course, the first and most crucial step was painstakingly long and tedious: Securing the orb back into its compartment. The team was stymied for nearly an hour, burning valuable time, getting the satellite back into its proper position. After several attempts and fraying nerves, the orb quietly snapped into place.

The heist was nearly complete.

With all traces of subterfuge removed, the freshly made duplicate Soviet seal was applied, the nose cone replaced and the top of the crate was nailed shut. All with an hour to spare. The crate was loaded back onto the truck and taken to the rendezvous point where the original driver took the satellite to join the rest of the traveling exhibition.

No one the wiser.

With the pictures and information in hand, the United States government was able to reverse engineer the satellite and apply that information to projects and programs already in the works. Until Sydney Wesley Finer’s tale was released to the public, it was firmly believed the Soviets were left unaware for years their prized position ever went missing.


By Jesse Gormley, contributor for Ripleys.com