The Space Race was an amazing display of technological excellence, but it also doubled as a direct metric for the US and USSR’s superiority. Although America would eventually win the race, the Soviets were in the lead for the early portion. The US was so desperate to catch up, the CIA actually managed to steal a Soviet satellite and study it, without their opponents ever knowing.
In the hearts and minds of the people in the USSR and US, as well as politicians, whoever was winning the Space Race was winning the Cold War. This science-based competition was sparked by military technology – namely the development of ballistic missiles – and therefore represented each respective nation’s military prowess.
To begin with, the Soviets lead the way with a string of impressive firsts, like putting the first satellite, animal, and human in space. The world was in awe of these achievements, which unsurprisingly made the Americans look dated in comparison.
Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, was created. John F. Kennedy replaced Eisenhower as president, and surprisingly, was rather ambivalent about space exploration.
This changed when the Soviets put the first human in space in April 1961. This forced Kennedy to realize the importance of the Space Race, resulting in his famous “We choose to go to the Moon” speech in September of 1962.
In part of the US effort to catch up, they brought in all the help they could get from the Military, NASA, and even the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Finding a Luna satellite
After the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957 and Luna 1 in 1959, they capitalized on their technological and political achievement by taking the equipment on a world tour. This tour included the United States, which in hindsight was probably not the best idea.
On such a tour, many people, including some in the CIA, doubted the Soviets would actually bring a real Luna satellite on the tour. However, the CIA planned to investigate regardless.
One night after the exhibition had closed, the CIA sent in operatives to take a look at the Luna satellite. The exact location and date this took place have never been revealed, but it is speculated to have occurred in the early 1960s.
When the operatives arrived, they were surprised to find the lone Soviet guard watching over the spacecraft was not at his post. They entered the room and were even more surprised when they discovered that the craft on display was a real Luna satellite.
The team reportedly spent hours with the craft, taking notes and many photographs to gather all the information possible to help the United States’ own space program.
They collected a substantial amount of data on the craft, but with such a prime opportunity, they decided to get even more; this time of the inside.
However the tour was set to move to another city – potentially in Mexico – so in typical CIA fashion, they concocted a Hollywood-like plan to steal the satellite. Because of course, they did.
During transportation, security around the Luna satellite was oddly relaxed. After an exhibition closed, the satellite would be boxed up and taken by truck to a railway station. Before being loaded onto a train, a guard would check the crates due to be delivered to the exhibition’s next location. The CIA noticed that the guard never actually checked what was inside each crate and none of them had an expected time of arrival.
This would be where the CIA would strike. They ensured that the Luna satellite was on the last truck to leave the exhibition and tailed it on its way to the railway station. No guards joined the trucks so the CIA stopped the driver carrying the Luna satellite and put him in a hotel overnight. How they did this is unknown, but it likely involved money, women, and alcohol.
The truck was then driven to a remote location and hidden.
At the railway station, the guard checking the crates clocked off without realizing the last truck never arrived. The mission had gone perfectly. The CIA was now in possession of the satellite and had all night to analyze it.
From 7:30 pm to 5:00 am the CIA dismantled the craft and photographed it in great detail. When they had what they needed, the satellite was reassembled, put back in its crate, and placed among the others at the railway station. The Soviets never suspected a thing.