CIA covert operation helped America win the race to the Moon


WASHINGTON, June 22, 2014 — Recently declassified documents from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) present a clearer picture of the all-encompassing and wide reaching efforts to win the Cold War’s Space Race.

George Washington University’s National Security Archive, a repository of declassified U.S. documents described as the world’s largest nongovernmental collection, unveiled a new batch of once highly sensitive CIA documents in a release titled, “Soldiers, Spies and the Moon: Secret U.S. and Soviet Plans from the 1950s and 1960s.” The newly released cache of formerly classified reports focuses on a series of military initiatives, as well as covert and surreptitious efforts to advance America’s lunar programs.

During the 1960s, following President John F. Kennedy’s iconic May 25, 1961 address to Congress in which he set the goal of putting a man on the Moon within the decade, the Cold War was reaching epic proportions. President Kennedy’s speech served to throw the gauntlet by setting the terms and singling out the ultimate prize for the soon to be gargantuan and nationally ambitious Space Race – a successful manned mission to the Moon.

Seizing a Soviet space craft

During an unspecified year, the declassified CIA document titled “The Kidnapping Of the Lunik,” from the Winter of 1967, notes that the Soviet Union embarked upon a worldwide tour of multiple countries to show off and amaze foreign nations with exhibits designed to personify the Soviet Union’s economic, industrial and scientific achievements.

As part of the effort, the Soviets included what was initially assumed to be generic mock-ups of their successful space vehicles such as the Sputnik, and the Lunik, respectively, the first successfully launched satellite and the first man-made object to reach the Moon. The Lunik was also the first to send photographs of the Moon’s far side, which was never before seen from Earth.

As the CIA paper explains, when the exhibition came to the U.S., American intelligence officials realized that there was a slim possibility some valuable technological insights could be gleaned if there were an opportunity to investigate the Lunik vehicle should surreptitious access be afforded.

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Initial excitement over the possibility of securing Soviet technology and space vehicle design details was soon tempered, as American intelligence officials doubted the Soviets would send production value examples to tour the public, especially on U.S. soil. Indeed, many intelligence officials assumed that any Soviet exhibition, including space technologies and vehicles, would unquestionably not be the real McCoy.

“It was presumably a mock-up made especially for the exhibition; the Soviets would not be so foolish as to expose a real production item of such advanced equipment to the prying eyes of imperialist intelligence,” notes the CIA.

Before adding, “Or would they?”

A clandestine visit with the Lunik

Like something out of a Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy spy-novel, it was soon decided that whether or not the Lunik exhibit visiting America was real or even partially real, it was necessary to determine if it had any intelligence value. American intelligence officials, in turn, decided a look was worth the risk.

Following the exhibition’s closure at an unspecified U.S. location, intelligence officers were able to secure 24-hours of uninterrupted access to the Lunik.

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It wasn’t long before these intelligence officers determined that the Lunik model in question was an actual “production item” that had been scaled down to a degree with some precautions made by the Soviets, since the “engine and most of the electrical and electronic components had been removed.”

Even so, there was much to be gained and as the CIA notes, “A few REDACTED, had been copied from the Lunik during the operation, but not with sufficient detail or precision to permit a definitive identification of the producer or determination of the REDACTED system used. It was therefore decided to try to get another access for a factory REDACTED team.”

The decision was made and the plans by the CIA to somehow figure out a way to “borrow” the Lunik while it was in transport from one city to the next was put into motion.

In a section of the declassified report appropriately titled ‘Lunik on loan,’ the CIA proceeds to explain how its team set out to secure some extended quality time with the Lunik, away from the prying, and most undoubtedly disapproving, Soviet minders’ eyes.

What transpired next will go down in Cold War espionage-lore.

Next Page: Reverse engineering the Lunik

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Timothy W. Coleman
Timothy W. Coleman is a writer, analyst, and a technophile. He co-founded two security technology startup firms, one of which was selected as Entrepreneur Magazine’s “100 Most Brilliant Companies.” Tim started off on Capitol Hill, worked on a successful U.S. Senate campaign, and subsequently joined a full-service, technology marketing communications firm. Previously, he was an intelligence analyst for a DC-based service providing global intelligence and forecasting from former CIA, U.S. intelligence and national security officers. Currently, he is the Editor-at-Large for Homeland Security Today. Tim completed his B.A. from Georgetown University, an M.B.A. in Finance from Barry University, a Graduate Studies Program at Singularity University at NASA Ames Research Center, and a Master’s of Public and International Affairs with a major in Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Tim volunteers and serves as a member of the board of directors at the Lint Center for National Security Studies. Read more about Tim here and follow him on Twitter @timothywcoleman.
  • Antony

    Good read, especially since it is very rare to read that American actually had to copy some design from Russian. Still, I’d think that if all countries simply collaborate with each other without being greedy, the world would have been a much better place.