USA vs USSR moon probe intrigue
July 21, 2021 1:26 PM   Subscribe

The Soviet Luna 1 ended up in orbit around the Sun.

when you miss in space, you miss big.
posted by logicpunk at 1:52 PM on July 21 [10 favorites]

I'm curious as to which country the Lunik 3 heist happened in.
posted by acb at 3:01 PM on July 21 [2 favorites]

Mexico City.
posted by clavdivs at 3:24 PM on July 21 [2 favorites]

Oooh, this would be a great movie to make.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 3:58 PM on July 21 [5 favorites]

The Soviet Luna 1 ended up in orbit around the Sun.

Hasn't every spacecraft (except Voyager 1&2, I suppose) ended up in orbit around the Sun?
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:29 PM on July 21 [22 favorites]

This was covered by a piece of plastic with a Soviet seal. It was their only way in, but if the seal was missing the Soviet guards would know someone had tampered with the spacecraft. Refusing to be stymied by a piece of plastic, they checked with CIA personnel offsite that the seal could be duplicated in time to replace it. Their offsite colleagues said yes, giving them clearance to cut it off.

This was the bit that stuck with me - like it’s not like someone could fire up a 3D printer here - replicating a non-trivial (possibly tamper evident) piece in a few hours in a foreign city. I’d love to know how many agents and support staff they had in place for this and how many contingencies they had planned for.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 4:36 PM on July 21 [5 favorites]

If it was the old wax-type seal - a glob with a bureaucrat's stamp pressed into it - it could probably be engraved quickly to match, or perhaps they already had a bunch of them on hand for (cough) other purposes.
posted by JoeZydeco at 4:52 PM on July 21 [3 favorites]

It says it was a plastic seal - but maybe…..

Also love to think that the ordinary (non spy) people involved with this (like the train station guard who accepted the late crate unquestionably the next morning) learn about this and can laugh about it now. Like I hope somewhere the train guard from 60 years ago is laughing and remembers what a slacker he was about checking manifests back when he was a 20 something and remembers the day he just waved that late Soviet space thingee truck through because it was more than his job was worth to question it……
posted by inflatablekiwi at 4:54 PM on July 21 [3 favorites]

The report says an initial 4 man team. Probably 2 in photography, 2 look outs, 2 drivers. The embassy support team.
An engineer, an overlook. A shadow man, radio operator. The under boss, station Chief. The planner, A Corporate suit spook, some one from NASA or and NSA. But for the job, 4+ 5 other minimum. Perhaps some of the details were gathered from a previous tour reconnoiter because a seal on the fly then, would require some sorta Printer, Paper, Label, Ply OP there.

'Real Life Rogue One: How the Soviets Stole NASA’s Shuttle Plans.'
posted by clavdivs at 6:12 PM on July 21 [4 favorites]

Odds on that the Soviet Space Program knew this might happen. Wonder how many of the photographed parts had ID numbers like РЕЍ-15 and приветянки-99? They probably put in lulz-worthy features like oxidizer manifolds made of cardboard, too.

The best bit of turn-about-is-fair play was the covert Ivy Bells submarine cable tap that was placed on a Russian military data cable. Despite several successful reads, the tap disappeared — only to appear, entirely without fanfare, in the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Moscow.
posted by scruss at 6:13 PM on July 21 [7 favorites]

But for the job, 4+ 5 other minimum.

Off the top of my head, I'd say you're looking at a Boeski, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever!
posted by inflatablekiwi at 7:17 PM on July 21 [12 favorites]

Ernest Borgnaine as Ronald Pelton
posted by clavdivs at 8:44 PM on July 21

This story seemed lacking in crucial details. Where exactly did this heist take place? Is this international spacecraft tour documented anywhere else? According to this story, the answer to the first question is Mexico City. (cue JFK assassination nerds)
posted by St. Oops at 12:55 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]

(Also, according to the link, the touring exhibition had been in New York which seems crazy if the Soviets really expected to keep their technology secret. And there ought to be a local write-up about the exhibit in New York but I can't be bothered to deal with the NYT paywall right now to dig it up.)
posted by St. Oops at 1:03 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]

Also found out about this neat Russian hoax. When they realised they couldn't beat the US to the Moon, they rigged a transmitter on an unmanned probe and chatted about a possible landing to freak out NASA.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:33 AM on July 22 [5 favorites]

Recommend every article by Teitel, the Ed Yong of spaceflight history.

A Brief History of Menstruating in Space is her; what more do you need to know.
posted by backsaw at 4:13 AM on July 22

Also found out about this neat Russian hoax

Hopefully they internally called it the Potemkin project.
posted by acb at 5:21 AM on July 22

Technology Review has a much more detailed story about how this went down, archive link here. Lots of details about people involved, their memories of it, etc.

Knowing it's in Mexico makes the whole story way more plausible. I was trying to imagine the CIA pulling this off in Riga or Berlin or something. Presumably the US had significant operative capability in Mexico City. Also many good details on how they managed to pull this off. Like, the satellite shipment was delayed because the driver for the truck was a US agent who faked a breakdown. And the Soviet guards were, um, busy.
Meanwhile, the farewell party was underway at the hotel. According to Silveti, the Soviet soldiers “let loose with the American prostitutes, and with the drinks.” Zambernardi’s son Paul told me that his father bought LSD to “put a Mickey on them all.” With every shot of tequila, thoughts of shipping manifests and cargo evaporated.
LSD is a hell of a Mickey!

Absolutely needs to be a movie. Like Argo only a much more fun location, drugs, and maybe some embellished action.

The source for most of this information is Eduardo Diaz Silveti, a Mexican spy. He published a book in 1987 titled Secuestro but I can't find any details about it on the English language Internet. He had a rough time of it after this event; in 1965 the new Mexican president called him a CIA traitor. He left the country permanently, for the US.
posted by Nelson at 6:37 AM on July 22 [5 favorites]

Hasn't every spacecraft (except Voyager 1&2, I suppose) ended up in orbit around the Sun?

There are 5 spacecraft that broke free from the Sun’s orbit:
Pioneer 10
Pioneer 11
Voyager 1
Voyager 2
New Horizons

The Parker Solar Probe is also eventually not going to orbit the Sun, but by going the other direction and crashing into it.
posted by jmauro at 7:52 AM on July 22 [3 favorites]

There were several classified Shuttle missions which may well have included a little light kidnap. From what I understand the entire design of the Shuttle (and Canadarm) was to allow for not just the deployment of satellites, but potential "abduction" of Soviet satellites. We know they could do it since they did it to a communications satellite in 1992.
posted by Acey at 8:52 AM on July 22

These Cold War spy capers are endlessly fascinating to me. In addition to this and the Ivy Bell mentioned above, the CIA also tried to salvage a sunken Soviet submarine without them knowing. I wonder what other schemes the CIA attempted, and I bet there are plenty of similar stories from the USSR still waiting to be told.
posted by TedW at 9:43 AM on July 22

Late to the party, but thanks for posting! My deepest desire as a child was to be a spy. A spy or a dinosaur.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 9:59 AM on July 22 [4 favorites]

the CIA also tried to salvage a sunken Soviet submarine without them knowing

What was incredible about the whole Project Azorian thing was the back story that was made up to justify the whole Glomar Explorer project. I remember reading about how manganese nodules were going to be our major new source of minerals in various press and scientific publications, but it was all total fabrication
posted by scruss at 11:50 AM on July 22 [8 favorites]

Also: "Nova, got caught up in the excitement, and they produced an entire documentary on ocean mining"
posted by clavdivs at 1:25 PM on July 22 [2 favorites]

Wait, the manganese nodule thing wasn't true? I saw artists' visualisations and everything!
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:08 PM on July 22 [6 favorites]

"...Trade Culture!"

-Alien: Resurrection
posted by clavdivs at 9:08 PM on July 22

"Hey, you, space hooligan!” is a great way to greet someone.
posted by doctornemo at 9:07 AM on July 23 [4 favorites]

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