Among the many unlikely episodes that occurred during the Cold War, few surpass this: when the CIA kidnapped (they preferred to say “borrowed”) a russian rocket. The operation, worthy of a James Bond movie, occurred in 1959, but the agency did not release the information until forty years later, as part of its “historical review” program. And despite the years that have passed, the official report does not give details about who, where and when that mission was carried out.
It all started when the Soviet Union prepared a traveling exhibition to showcase its economic achievements. Industrial products, machinery, textiles, leather, civil aircraft and nuclear icebreaker models Lenin, which is usual in these cases. And, of course, the best example of its technology, the envy of the recently created NASA: copies of the first artificial satellites.
At the last minute, the sample was enriched with an unexpected article, the upper stage of the carrier rocket of the first probes to the Moon. Of natural size, it measured six meters long by more than three in diameter. Freshly painted, three windows had been drilled on its side that allowed a view of the interior. In there was a copy of Moon two (Lunik 2), the first object that had impacted our satellite.
A surprise for the CIA
When the show opened in New York (other versions place it in Paris), CIA personnel made a routine visit. His surprise was great when he noticed that the rocket was not a simple display model, but an authentic one, a flight one. It was missing some components: the engine and electronics, but otherwise it seemed complete. Could the Soviet Union be so proud of its space achievements that it had yielded to the temptation to reveal one of its greatest secrets? It would be interesting to take a closer look at it.
The opportunity would present itself on the following scale. The report released by the CIA does not specify the placebut later information places it in Mexico City, where the exhibition would be open to the public for a month between November and December 1959.
All its contents, but especially the rocket, were guarded day and night by security personnel. That made it impossible to get close to him, so a team of spies (“operatives” in CIA parlance) decided to wait for the closure, when all the materials would be loaded onto a train bound for the port of Tampico. From there they would go to Havana.
The task force consisted of five specialists. According to the best rules of espionage, they arrived in Mexico on separate flights, stayed in different hotels under false identities and even the team leader recommended that during the days prior to the operation they abstain from very spicy Mexican food to avoid gas, since that they would have to work in a restricted, closed and silent environment.
The honored trucker
On the closing day of the exhibition, a truck convoy was organized for the railway station. The one who had to transport the huge box Moon He suffered a timely breakdown that delayed his departure for several hours. The security guards, considering their mission accomplished and without waiting for the last truck to leave, signed up for a farewell party intended to celebrate the end of a job well done. Then even those who had to guard the boxes at the railway loading dock would be added.
Already dark and without guards around, the truck started in a “miraculous” way. But instead of going to the station, he took some side streets and almost deserted. Escorted, yes, by two cars whose occupants made sure that no one followed them.
Halfway there, the truck stopped and the CIA men convinced the driver to hand over the wheel to one of their own. Kindly, he accompanied him to a hotel where he would be invited until the next morning, all expenses paid. The report does not detail what he was entertained with. Money, tequila, female companionship, or a bit of everything.
The truck, covered with a tarpaulin, entered a dilapidated lumberyard, a maneuver that was not easy due to the narrowness of the door. After a few minutes of waiting, they opened the top lid of the box. Luckily, it showed signs of having been opened and closed on other occasions, so any new damage would go unnoticed.
More than a hundred screws
Then, guided only by the light of their flashlights, the technicians jumped into the box. As they had been warned, the space between the rocket and the walls was minimal. One group dedicated themselves to unscrewing the front windows and another, to the rear plate that would give them access to the fuel tanks and hydraulic system. There were more than a hundred metric standard screws; luckily, this was a detail they had taken into account when selecting their tools.
In order not to leave traces of their shoes, the five men worked in socks. For hours they were taking pictures of the interior and exterior. Eight reels. At midnight, an auxiliary car that monitored their movements, took the exposed film to the laboratory of the American embassy to develop it and check that the photos had been correctly registered.
Meanwhile, the five men continued scraping metal filings, copying the names of the manufacturers of each part, disassembling valves, measuring the size of engine mounts and scraping the remains of hydraulic fluid and kerosene that still remained in the tanks.
For their part, the technicians who had entered the bow compartment found a connector protected by a plastic seal with the coat of arms of the USSR. It had to be removed if they wanted access to the rest of the circuitry. They tore it up and sent the fragments to another specialist (who was probably also waiting at the embassy). Shortly after, the same support car brought back another seal identical to the original.
without raising suspicion
It was already dawn. It only remained to reassemble the removed parts without forgetting the forged seal. Then, check that the inside of the box was clean, without traces that would reveal its passage, close it and take the truck to the dock of the station where the rest of the exhibition was waiting. Along the way they would pick up the original driver, delighted with his adventure. The instructions were for him to park next to the other vehicles and take a nap while waiting for the Russian official in charge of the office to appear at around seven in the morning.
He didn’t flinch in the least. The list of packages was long and he had no knowledge of what was in them. He just put a mark next to the line that referred to the huge bulge and that was it. Within a few hours, all the boxes were loaded onto a freight train bound for Tampico.
The loot of photos and data obtained in this operation allowed CIA specialists to estimate the weight and power of the rocket. Its weight was very close to the maximum load capacity of the main vector, the same one that had launched Sputnik. The R-7 was a military missile, designed to launch thermonuclear devices. But with this stage added, it became a perfect vehicle for planetary exploration.
Preliminary calculations suggested that a five-ton payload could be sent into Earth orbit with it (as, indeed, would happen two years later with Yuri Gagarin’s flight). Or a ton to Mars, or deposit a hundred kilos on the Moon. History would be in charge of demonstrating how correct those predictions were.
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