Some readers might remember there was a time when the Central Intelligence Agency accomplished amazing feats against other countries, instead of against American senators. Probably one of the more interesting CIA success stories is embodied in a declassified CIA journal entry. Believe it or not, the CIA “borrowed” a Soviet space capsule for study, then returned it, before the Soviets even knew what was happening. That’s right, a kidnapped space capsule, accomplished in a one night caper by the CIA.
As near as anyone can tell, the Soviets didn’t know about this caper until the sanitized and declassified report was released in 1995. What capsule did the CIA kidnap? And how did they do it?
First, the target capsule was a Soviet Lunik or Luna. This capsule was designed specifically to escape the Earth’s gravity and explore the moon, normally by releasing a payload that crashed onto the moon’s surface. The fact that the Soviets were the first to do such a feat made the Lunik a technological target for American intelligence agencies. Sometime, perhaps in the early 1960’s (the entry doesn’t specifically give a date), the Soviets displayed the Lunik capsule during an exhibition tour. The Americans had some suspicion that the capsule was not a mock-up, but an actual capsule, stripped of components. The exhibit allowed everyone to get a really good look at the capsule itself, but was heavily guarded before and during the exhibition. So no one could get **really** close to examine the Lunik.
However, the CIA noted there was an opportunity to “borrow” the Lunik after the exhibition—and the Soviets would never know. At the end of an exhibition, all Soviet exhibition components were packed, and then shipped by truck from the exhibition area to a railroad station. The Soviet person accepting the components for shipment wasn’t in communication with the people who shipped the components from the exhibition area. This, in essence, meant the receiver didn’t know when to expect certain components to arrive at the train station. The Lunik was the last component to be packed onto a truck and shipped.
The CIA took the opportunity to switch truck drivers, and moved the Lunik to a salvage yard. At the salvage yard, the CIA opened the wooden shipping box. Once they gained entry into the box, they took pictures, measurements, noted the dimensions of the payload cradle, noted markings, and more. From their very quick, but thorough efforts, the CIA learned the Lunik they were studying was the fifth model off of the assembly line. They were also able to identify particular electrical component suppliers for the Lunik.
Once the CIA completed their work, they basically put everything back together, then had the Lunik driven back to the railroad, where it waited until the Soviet checker showed up at 7AM and noticed it. And did nothing but make sure it was loaded onto the train.
As far as the rest of the story in the journal, there’s some mutual backslapping about how great the cooperation was between certain parts of the CIA, and people were satisfied with the work the agents did when they examined the Lunik.
So yes, the CIA hijacked a truck, under the Soviet’s noses, had their way with a state-of-the-art satellite, put everything back together, and sent it back to the Soviets with no one the wiser. It’s the kind of story that movies are made of.
You can find more detail about this story, and others, in the National Security Archives. Take a look.