Spy Tech: Stealing A Moon Probe

Ever hear of the Soviet Luna program? In the west, it was often called Lunik, if you heard about it at all. Luna was a series of unmanned moon probes launched between 1959 and 1976. There were at least 24 of them, and 15 were successful. Most of the failures were not reported or named. Luna craft have a number of firsts, but the one we are interested in is that it may have been the first space vehicle to be stolen — at least temporarily — in a cold war caper worthy of a James Bond novel.

Luna-1 Payload

Around 1960, the Soviet Union toured several countries with exhibits of their industrial and technological accomplishments. One of the items on display was the upper stage of a Luna vehicle with windows cut out to show the payload inside. At first, the CIA suspected the vehicle was just a model. But they wanted to be sure.

The story is laid out in a CIA document from 1967 that was only declassified in 1994. Even then, the document has a lot of redactions in it. The paper is sparse on how they managed it, but when the exhibit closed — somehow — a group of intelligence operatives wound up inside the exhibition hall alone for 24 hours.

What they found was surprising. While the engine and most of the avionics were gone, the vehicle was the real article. They took measurements and photos, hoping that analysis would reveal more about the vehicle’s performance characteristics.

Here’s where you start getting into the redacted material. The team was able to get something from the probe — probably machine tooling marks — but there wasn’t enough detail to identify where and how they were made. They decided to get a team specializing in this kind of analysis to examine it more closely.

Between the Lines

If you see a picture of a basketball player making a slam dunk and the ball is cut out of the picture, you can probably still guess it is a basketball. In this case, it is obvious from context that the CIA wanted to know the facility that built the capsule. Why? I’ll leave that to your imagination. Charitably, maybe they wanted to break in there, too. Charitably.

The other interesting implication (that could be wrong) is that the CIA apparently had lots of information about tool markings at various Soviet facilities and a well-developed technology for matching those to specific articles. You have to wonder how they would come by this data. There is a reference to a Joint Factory Markings Center so this isn’t some lone expert, but — apparently — a standing group of people studying factory markings.


The exhibition moved from town to town on trucks. Again, there are no details about methods, but the CIA intercepted a shipping manifest and found a crate about the size of the probe. Quoting experience, the team wanted to examine the probe either before the show or after. However, by this time the Soviets had a 24-hour guard on the exhibits, so this was not to be.

The four men on the team arrived and bought local clothes. They worked with the local CIA Station to get pictures of the crate and realized that they’d have to enter the 20 foot long and 14-foot high crate via the roof. They bought ladders, ropes, and an assortment of other tools. The CIA then waited for the exhibit to go on the move.

The Operation

It is interesting to read a simple sentence like “it was arranged to make the Lunik the last truckload of the day…” You have to wonder what the method was to accomplish that. When the truck left, a CIA car was in front of it and behind it. When they were sure the truck had no escorts, it was stopped and the driver was replaced. The original driver was kept in a hotel room overnight — another interesting untold part of the story.

The CIA rented a nearby salvage yard with a ten-foot-high fence surrounding it. Once the truck was there, radio cars patrolled the area to make sure no one would disturb the work. They also had surveillance on the Soviet waiting at the train station to load the crates. He didn’t seem alarmed by the missing crate, ate dinner, and returned to his hotel room.

Finally, the CIA officers allowed the factory marking team to enter the salvage yard. They had to remove part of the roof. They were worried about leaving traces of their break-in, but the crate had been opened so many times that this wasn’t going to be a problem after all.

Dropping ladders in the crate, the team split into two parts. The team at the front removed a window, squeezed inside barefoot, and took pictures. This is pre cell phone cameras, remember, so they sent a roll of film back with one of the radio cars to make sure the pictures came out alright.

The tail section team had to remove 130 metric bolts to gain access to the insides of the engine compartment. There was no engine, but the mounts and tanks would tell them something.

A Stamp

Probably not the Stamp the Operatives Found!

To get access to the payload, they had to cut some wire that had a Soviet seal on them. The wires were cut and given to one of the patrol cars who returned it to the Station so that it could be duplicated immediately. At the end of the evening, an exact copy arrived and the team reassembled the probe. They left at 4 AM. By 5 AM, a driver took the truck away and then turned it back over to the original driver.

You have to wonder why the original driver didn’t report anything. Your imagination runs wild at what must have happened in the hotel room he was kept in overnight. When the railway station Soviet showed up in the morning, the truck was waiting. He didn’t seem surprised and had it loaded onto a train. As far as anyone could tell, the Soviets never knew about this operation.

More Reading and Thoughts

If you want to read the original account by [Sydney Finer] (and, no, we don’t know if that’s his real name) you can find the original CIA document online. Another good read that is related is the paper “Intelligence for the Space Race” issued in 1961 and declassified in 1994 or 1995.

By the way, the Luna probes had other notable firsts. Luna 1 was the first spacecraft to orbit the sun (it missed). Luna 2 was the first man-made object on the moon (see video below).

Luna 3 took the first photos of the dark side of the moon (see video below). Luna 9 was the first spacecraft to soft land on another planetary body and returned the first close up shots (in stereo) of the moon. The Luna 16 was the first robotic mission to return lunar soil samples in 1970. Along with Luna 20 and 24, they returned about 2/3 of a pound of lunar material to earth.

You can only wonder what the CIA wanted to do with this information. I know that some of the data helped in tracking future flights. You also have to wonder how often the Soviets examined US space hardware.

As a side note, the CIA just released some previously classified material about Sputnik. Some of it is pretty dry, but there are a few interesting tidbits about the evaluation of the threat from the Sputnik program.

61 thoughts on “Spy Tech: Stealing A Moon Probe

    1. As there were at least three high level Soviet moles in the CIA at that time (Ames, et al), it’s almost certain that the Soviets knew about their plans and allowed the operation to go ahead for their own reasons.

    2. if you know about “amazing thing” they’re doing now, you’d not be talking about them. we find out about *failures* right away, and successes, if we’re lucky, decades from now.

      1. That’s also true.

        During the 1970s, SIS (MI6) conducted an operation against a terrorist organisation using the ‘simple’ expedient of starting an internecine fight between members with “incongruent political viewpoints”, which resulted in it’s complete destruction.

        This wasn’t made public until 2000 and something (30 years) and even now the full details have not been disclosed.

    3. Well yeah, they are a bunch of amazing government-funded thiefs. Not saying that the KGB was any better… But it’s all just very sophisticated thievery. The question is why we don’t tolerate thievery by the ‘little man’, but tend to make heros of big-league thieves. If little-man thievery is loathsome, why isn’t big-league thievery even more loathsome then? I’m honestly trying to understand this discrepancy in our thinking, and where it originated from. It’s hypocrite, and in most or all religions, hypocrisy earns you a place in hell. :)

      1. It’s for the ‘greater good’ or, more honestly, the ‘lesser evil’. You have to try and get the decision makers and the implementers that you trust and that have ideas about ‘greater good’ that are compatible with your own. Also, experience teaches that the people on the ‘other side’ don’t always have ideas incompatible with your own.

      2. “Little man” thieves WERE very popular…in the 1930s. Bonny and Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson… Part of the reason they were so successful was because of their popularity. People tended to be more likely to help them/not inhibit them than turn them in. It also parallels the popularity of varying types of superheroes. Many heroes’ popularity reflects citizen buy-in with the government/system. Antiheroes tend to be more popular when the government isn’t.

  1. James Bond operation is right! Very impressive. The report makes it sound as if they’d made arrangements with the truck driver beforehand – although it’s not clear whether that was threats, bribery, or just that the trucker wanted to stick it to the Russians.

    My guess as to why the CIA would have stolen and measured the thing is that whatever factory built it was probably also making similar parts for aircraft or nuclear missiles. Examining this would have given them a better idea of how well the Russians put those things together.

    1. I suspect you’re right. Even if they didn’t gain any new techniques or technology–like, things they could directly use–I have little doubt this fit into larger espionage efforts to figure out capabilities and limitations of Soviet missiles.

      1. There is a Cold War story about Soviet ambassadors touring a U.S. aircraft plant.
        Unknown to their guides, they had sticky material on the soles of their shoes.
        Metal chips removed from those shoes was sent back to the USSR for metallurgy tests.

        1. The funny thing about that is, it might not have been to see the state of US metallurgy, but whether the USSR export controls on their monopoly of titanium were working out well… (Or whether US had found an alternate source.)

        2. Not the US. The UK’s Rolls Royce jet engine plant. This was the early 50’s, if I remember correctly. It was still the early days of jet technology, and everyone was still sorting out their various loot in people and machines taken from Germany. Getting the right alloy mix was a problem for the Russians, and so they used the method you spoke of.

    2. As far as the truck driver goes, it’d be useful to know what country this took place in. If it was Eastern Europe, and a Soviet-occupied country, I’m sure you’d find plenty of people pissed off with the Russians enough to betray them for a night in a nice hotel with a few treats. And maybe give him a few quid for helping.

      What’s amazing is that Luna-2 hit the Moon in 1959! 1959! How primitive was technology, and people, back then? But 90% sheer bloody mindedness, and 10% rocket science, managed to hit the Moon!

      Luna-9 landed in 1966 and sent back TV pictures, as well as better pictures by Radiofax transmission. It would’ve been nice to have Neil Armstrong find it and pull faces into the camera. Or maybe show it a real moon.

      1. I figured it was somewhere in continental Europe given their notes that they were going to send the probe back to Russia on a train. Could have even been France or West Germany, although the note about needing to get local clothes for the operatives makes me think it was behind the Iron Curtain.

    1. You really do have to wonder how many times the reverse happened, there are no declassified documents in Russia to tell of similar tales. Or are there, does anyone know ?

      The only similar spying events on the US that I can think of would be “The Thing”, pretty much the entire US nuclear program from day one, oh and that space shuttle clone they made (Buran programme).

      1. “You really do have to wonder how many times the reverse happened, there are no declassified documents in Russia to tell of similar tales. Or are there, does anyone know ?”

        Sadly not. One of the conditions the former Warsaw Pact countries had to agree to in order to receive American ‘aid’ was they would not release any intelligence and/or security related documents to the public.

          1. Make your Freedom of Information Law…

            Trusted Information Network’s Freedom Of Information Law…

            And give the staff some key identifying hats… now the shorthand for said hat would be:

            TINFOIL hat!

      2. Which – of course – wasn’t a clone. Different size. Different engine arrangement. Different control systems.
        It was a clone in the same way a bicycle is a clone of a moped (you can select which one was the bicycle and which was the moped according to personal biases ;P).

        1. So you would say with absolute certainty that no design material flowed in either direction. That the decision to use replaceable aerogel tiles at that point in human history was the only appropriate technology to use in a reusable space craft. And the design of a flying brick would be the only logical decision. I can’t say for certain that Multiple discovery or simultaneous invention did not happen.

        1. Heh…

          It’s rarely that simple.

          The Soviets actually bought them from an very prominent American defence contractor who ‘obtained’ them from the CIA who either stole them or, more likely, bribed someone to steal them on their behalf.

      3. I know that the Soviets recovered by submarine one of the United States’ test missiles when it splashed down before the U.S. could get to it. Since the test was a repeat, they were already there waiting for it.

      4. There have long been rumors or suggestions that the soviets stole the plans for Concorde and used them to build the Tupolev TU-144 SST. (although that would have been UK and French espionage, not US)

      5. Buran definitely wasn’t a clone. Different internal construction, different heat shield material (Buran’s is said to be more durable). Different approach to getting to orbit, with Buran having no large engines of it’s own. The “brick” shape and delta planform follow quite closely and naturally from the requirements set for the craft. At what level the influence of stolen plans lies is hard to tell but more likely the Russians were copying at the requirements level. Shuttle and Buran both looked the way they did because the US decided it wanted once-around orbit capability, requiring large cross-range capability and thus large (delta) wings combined with a large cargo capacity. That alone basically set the entire aerodynamic design in stone. If Russia decided it wanted to copy the once-around orbit capability (thus needing large crossrange) and similar or larger cargo capacity then it would result in a (at first glance) nearly identical craft.

        Similar goes for Concorde and Tu-144. By all accounts the Tu-144 was a crude machine, with little sophistication. It achieved supersonic flight only by afterburner, brute strength and soviet stubbornness. It was a dangerous, uncomfortable aircraft for it’s passengers and guzzled fuel like nobodies business. If the soviets had been capable of copying anything from Concorde, they would probably have come out with a better aircraft. (Even today Concorde is a marvel of engineering, and there’s so many details people never think about that went into the design. I’d dare argue it’s an engineering achievement on the level of the Space Shuttle)

  2. There are indeed many things you can deduce from physical access to the craft. The diameter of the fuel lines, for example, tells you something about the rate of fuel going into the engine, which tells you something about thrust. The size of the fuel tanks tells you something about the total delta-V the craft was capable of and so on.

    That said, the chances are that they were just doing it because it seemed like something to do. Bureaucracies are very good at growing and protecting themselves, but not necessarily very good at actually doing their jobs. The time frame between this data being gathered in 1960 and the first US Ranger probe to actually succeed at taking photos of the moon up until impact (Ranger 7, 1964) is so short that I doubt much of this information could have made a meaningful difference to the Ranger program. The CIA was spying because that’s what it did. Whether sense could be later made of the results was not their concern.

  3. “The other interesting implication (that could be wrong) is that the CIA apparently had lots of information about tool markings at various Soviet facilities and a well-developed technology for matching those to specific articles. You have to wonder how they would come by this data. There is a reference to a Joint Factory Markings Center so this isn’t some lone expert, but — apparently — a standing group of people studying factory markings.”

    Have to wonder if corporate and industrial espionage goes as far?

    1. There are a number of known “leaks” of information from US intelligence agencies to US manufacturing companies _not_ involved in military hardware. IOW economical espionage isn’t necessarily limited to corporations. There are known cases where French state agencies have done the same too, wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t happen all over the place.

      I’ve once read a book claiming that industrial espionage in some cases have evolved to some kind of hot cold war where people actually get (or got) killed, don’t know if I believe that. But industrial espionage happens all the time and with sophisticated methods, smuggling of metal particles and chemical substances from restricted locations to be analyzed and cloned elsewhere etc.

      And when that kind of cloning goes wrong bad things can happen. Bad steel can kill people, bad capacitors can blow up and make stuff unreliable etc.

      1. It was shown from the leaks that the German BND (secret service) spied on companies to get secret info (non-terrorist/spy related mind you) and then relayed that to the US. Pure industrial espionage done by Germans against Germany’s interest.
        And Merkel was/is OK with it. And yet she got re-elected.

        Some people are more subservient to the US than the most beaten slave.

        You have to wonder if not just communism is dead but democracy also is basically a failed thing.
        They should hurry up and get the AI operational so they can run things, because clearly humans are a failure.

        1. In any system if you leave some “elite” running the things for too long, they will stack up the odds against those who wish to change the system in any way.

          After all they are rich and powerful *now*, and they are happy with it.

        2. “You have to wonder if not just communism is dead but democracy also is basically a failed thing.”

          Ahem … China … a communist success …
          Shhh … I know, it doesn’t count …

  4. Joint Factory Markings Center

    Probably were paying machine tool operators in Soviet countries to snap photos of markings made by their cutting tools. For example a facing mill would make a distinctive pattern at a given material advance speed and RPM. With one photo and data on that cutting pass, parts milled with that same cutter could be identified, and different feed speed and tool RPM could be calculated.

    That’d work until the mill tool was replaced or resharpened. So you have your spies snap new photos of cuts made by every new tool and after every sharpening.

    Since the invention of replaceable and indexable cutting points that are all as close to identical as possible, such an operation would not be very feasible. Cutting patterns could and would change far more often as points get rotated and swapped out. Also, one milling cutter made to high tolerance, with high tolerance points, likely wouldn’t be identifiable from another of the same tool from the same manufacturer.

    Inconsistencies caused by wear or damage to the points would be rare and difficult to track, perhaps impossible if the policy is to scrap any item that shows marks or defects left by worn or damaged tooling. That’s one of the main reasons for replaceable cutting inserts, eliminating cosmetic or critical defects in the machined surfaces.

        1. It was a bit different from what’s now understood by the term CNC, but it did exist.

          If I remember correctly, the machines I saw in the early 70s used some sort of plugboard for ‘programming’.

      1. That is pretty much impossible to do in standard G-code without it becoming very noticeable. And part inspection is often so rigid/anal-retentive that a deviation in the marking pattern is likely to be picked out.

        Galane is probably right, it’s much harder to pick out individual machines/tools nowadays. I’m betting they could probably even identify individual operators on hand operated systems. Everybody is just slightly different in tool setup and how certain tasks are approached. You CAN probably say something about the feeds/speeds and tools used even in modern systems. Not down to individual tools, but at least type and brand. It might also be possible to identify some individual machines from the vibration harmonics left in the tools under certain circumstances

        1. These days it’s probably much simpler and more feasible to obtain the necessary information by means of social engineering and the ever-present eye of social media and smartphones.

  5. That’s nothing. You should do a story on project Azorian / K-129. The CIA was able to locate an imploded Soviet Sub using acoustic recordings and a small dragnet. They ended up recovering large sections of it that were more than 3 miles down…. all in secret.

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