U.S. ‘kidnapped’ Soviet spacecraft


lunikThe Kidnapping of the Lunik may sound like the latest spy thriller, but it’s the title of a U.S. intelligence report from 1967.

The USSR, in the midst of the space race, sent the Lunik — Sputnik’s younger but stronger sister — on a global tour, an old-fashioned exhibition/trade fair to demonstrate Communism’s most high-tech achievement.

You’d think that the Soviets would send a Hollywood-style mock-up, right?

Wrong. They sent the real thing, minus the engine and most electrical and electronic components.

When the exhibit closed in one city, American intelligence agents got a good look at it for 24 hours.

But they were keen to have experts evaluate the Russian satellite. In 1959, the USSR’s Lunik probes became the first man-made object to reach to the moon (it crashed) and to go behind the moon.

When the exhibition reached another city, the CIA “gained access to it second time by borrowing it overnight and returning it before the Soviets missed it,” Sydney Wesley Finer writes in the 1967 report.

Because the Lunik was guarded 24/7 by Soviets during the second exhibition, the intelligence agents had to wait until the show was over and the Lunik crated  for shipment. Then the CIA agents “arranged to make the Lunik the last truckload of the day to leave the grounds,” Finer says.

When the Americans made sure no Soviets were on the road watching the truck with the precious cargo as it made its way to the railroad station, “the truck was stopped at the last possible turn-off, a canvas was thrown over the crate and a new driver took over,” Finer says. “The original driver was escorted to a hotel room and kept there for the night.”

In a salvage yard, the American experts poked, prodded and photographed the Lunik. Meanwhile, at the railroad yard where the shipment was expected, the Americans got lucky. The Russian waiting to check in the truckloads evidently grew tired, bored, hungry or all three: He left his post to eat dinner and then headed to his hotel to sleep.

By 7 a.m., the Russian was back at his post at the rail yard, none the wiser. There he “found the truck with the Lunik awaiting him.”

The CIA report was declassified in 1995, but has been brought to light again with the 45th anniversary of the moon landing.