Operation Lunik: The CIA’s Plan To Steal A Soviet Spacecraft
The Early Space Race
The Lunik Plot was a CIA operation during the Cold War in which a Soviet Union spacecraft was hijacked at a train station.
Newspapers in the United States wrongly referred to the Luna as “Lunik,” much as they had done with Sputnik. Luna’s images and a map of the moon’s far side were released by TASS (Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union) which included Russian commentary.
Lunik and Sputnik were advanced satellites, important to the Soviet space programme, and were open to the public for tours in 1967. The Soviets had no idea that US spies had stolen the Lunik and returned it without anyone’s knowledge. It was eventually published in an internal agency journal to explain or boast to other members of the CIA about the unofficial loaner.
Soviet forces were eager to demonstrate their technological and scientific prowess during the Cold War to strengthen their political power. Both the Soviet Union and the United States had a strong incentive to keep tabs on the other’s development during the Space Race. In the end, Soviet forces were able to land the Lunik II on the moon’s surface in September of 1959, completing their mission.
The Soviet Union made bold efforts early in the Space Race to place itself well ahead of the United States. Having launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1, in October 1957, and the first animal into orbit, Sputnik 2, a month later, the United States found itself in danger of falling more and further behind the Russians.
Soviet Union exhibits were common at science fairs around the world during this time. At these exhibitions, Soviet scientists would display their industrial equipment as well as their scientific and nuclear breakthroughs.
However, by the end of 1959, an opportunity arose that the US administration could not pass up. The Sputnik and Lunik satellites were on display as part of a Soviet-sponsored global tour as a way of showing off the country’s technological prowess. A closer examination of the Lunik satellite and its launch vehicle was decided to be necessary by American operators during the exhibition.
It took the Luna two days to make its way through space, and on October 7 it passed 40 minutes behind the moon. 17 images of the moon’s hidden face were relayed back to Earth by Luna’s camera, automatic film processor, and scanner. The Soviets held a party in Moscow to commemorate their latest win against the United States in space.
Sputnik 1, the first man-made object in orbit, had been launched by the Soviets two years prior. Curious Americans tuned their car stereos to hear the satellite’s electronic signal as it flew over Kansas, Iowa, and New York. People feared that the Soviets might be able to deliver a nuclear bomb to Washington or Los Angeles if they were able to send probes around the Earth and Moon. The U.S. responded by building rockets and preparing students for atomic bomb rehearsals in schools.
Eisenhower’s CORONA program was an embarrassment. Eisenhower had invested $110 million in his own Sputnik project, which would have cost over $1 billion today. Failed, misfired or landed in the Pacific Ocean as Soviet cosmonauts trained to walk on the moon, seven rockets failed.
The Brains Behind Operation Lunik
The Soviets showed off their Luna rockets with a display of national pride. American spies confirmed that a Luna was on exhibit in New York City. They intended to steal the spacecraft, and then hand it back to the Soviets. They had a plan, after all.
A strategy was devised after a little reconnaissance. CIA personnel decided to “kidnap” the Lunik as it travelled from one destination to the next, just like in Ocean’s 11 (or 8 depending on which Ocean you prefer). The plan was simple enough, hijack the truck carrying the satellite, move it over to a nondescript location, dissect it, and then return it back to the tour the next day before the Soviets ever found out.
They knew the Soviet display would be in Mexico City on November 21st because they had it on their radar. “Astronomical models” were mentioned in a manifesto. Exactly like Luna, the box was 17 feet long and 8 feet broad. Jackpot. Disassembling, photographing, and inspecting the rocket for any Soviet activity took the CIA only a few hours.
Eduardo Díaz Silveti, a Mexican spy, says the CIA recruited him for a top-secret mission that was “tremendously necessary for the United States.” He turned down the position. According to Silveti’s 1987 book ‘Secuestro‘ (Kidnap), because his wife had terminal cancer. The information was handed to Mexico’s President Chief of Staff, José Gómez Huerta.
Political humiliation would be devastating for Mexico’s administration, which made overtures to the Soviet Union and the United States. It was an ideal location in Mexico City to steal a Soviet rocket the size of a school bus.
Robert Zambernardi, a Massachusetts-born Italian American CIA agent, was a specialist in photography, secret writing, disguise, and womanizing. Rudos “tough guys” from Mexico’s corrupt and dangerous Federal Judicial Police were also under Zambernardi’s influence.
Winston Scott was a Central Intelligence Agency officer who served as Mexico City station chief from 1956 to 1969. Scott’s deputy station chief, Warren Dean, was the second man chosen for the job. Dean was a tall and sexy martini man who had served in Bolivia and Chile with the FBI before joining Scott in London and then moving to Mexico City with him.
Dean observed employees transfer the Soviet boat’s cargo and load it onto a train at the theatre and asked his colleague whether they could somehow seize it. Zambernardi advised Dean they could delay the robbery “for a few hours.” Dean admitted that there were “too many loose ends” in the situation. But Zambernardi argued that “the train must come to a halt.”
The Plan to Kidnap Lunik
A variety of Russian memorabilia was slowly being loaded onto the freight cars, including everything from stamps with hammers and sickles to fur coats and scientific instruments that demonstrated the Soviet Union’s scientific might, including cutting-edge microscopes that revealed the invisible and world-beating telescopes that scanned the vast beyond. Workers hoisted the Luna onto the train under the watchful eyes of armed KGB agents.
In 1967, Sydney Wesley Finer detailed the entire scheme in redacted CIA documents that were made public. Documents obtained by BuzzFeed show that CIA operatives planned when they would take over the satellite. The crate 20 feet long, 11 feet wide and 14 feet deep, containing the Lunik, was put onto a truck and driven to the next stop on its tour. Disguised CIA agents pulled over the truck, swapped drivers (escorting the original Russian driver to a nearby motel), and carried the newly hijacked satellite to a nearby salvage yard, which they had rented for the occasion.
All operations were put on hold until it was confirmed that the Soviets had no idea that Lunik had been taken to an unidentified salvage yard. As soon as it was determined that there was no danger, work on dissecting the satellite got underway. A group of four men got to work right away.
Kidnapping the satellite may have been a piece of cake. But the Lunik’s shipping crate was the source of problems from the outset. The only way to get into the big crate, which was secured from the inside with bolts, was from the top. The crew eventually got the lid off the crate, despite the limited space and the desire to preserve the crate’s integrity.
Two of the men, equipped with cameras, shimmied their way to the back of the crate, while the other two photographed the nose, inward, as Lunik’s launching vehicle was now revealed. Inspection windows were removed from the craft’s nose so the crew could get a better look at the cargo orb. The crew in the very back of the boat was promptly let down. The engine had been removed from the craft. It wasn’t a total loss, though. Fuel and oxidizer tanks were still in place, as well as the engine mounts. The US government would eventually be able to back into the engine size based on this information.
During this time, though, the crew at the craft’s apex ran into their own difficulties. The satellite’s movement was slowed by a Soviet seal made of plastic. A cut in the seal around the Lunik’s compartment in the launch vehicle would be a sure sign of tampering. When the situation arose, the group immediately contacted those in positions of authority. Local agents were able to recreate the seal in time for the satellite to return to service. When the seal on the orb’s container was broken, the orb was removed and photographed in its entirety.
The Lunik and its transport vehicle were dismantled and photographed after a few hours. Everything had to be reassembled before the early morning rendezvous with the satellite at the next checkpoint on the tour, so they retraced their tracks and put it all back together. First and foremost, securing the orb back into its container was a lengthy and arduous process. The team was unable to correct the satellite’s position for about an hour, wasting valuable time. The orb finally snapped into place after several attempts and frayed nerves.
The robbery was almost over. The new Soviet seal was affixed, the nose cone was restored, and the top of the crate was nailed shut after all indications of duplicity were gone. There was still an hour to go. Returning the crate was a simple matter of loading it onto the truck and transporting it back to where the original driver had left it.
The United States government was able to use the satellite’s images and information to reverse engineer the satellite and apply that information to projects and initiatives that were already underway. The Soviets were thought to have been completely oblivious for years that their prized position had vanished until Sydney Wesley Finer’s story was made public.
When the CIA declassified information on the Lunik Plot in 2019, no Soviet soldiers were aware of the heist. Since the Lunik Plot was a successful clandestine operation, it helped the United States gain a better understanding of Soviet scientific capabilities at a time when they were at their most formidable.