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Lunik: Inside the CIA’s audacious plot to steal a Soviet satellite

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Lunik: Inside the CIA’s audacious plot to steal a Soviet satellite


The documents contained some detail about the secrets gleaned from the mission: “Covertly, we were able to acquire detailed data about the upper-stage rocket vehicle … the Lunik stage which mates directly to the Soviet ICBM.” After discovering the weights of the propellant tanks and payload, the US could reverse-engineer the vehicle’s performance capability.

Exactly what space probe sat in the lumber yard that night is still unclear. Silveti assumed he had stolen Luna 3, the exact spacecraft that photographed the far side of the moon. But that is physically impossible: the craft was not built to withstand reentry. According to Gunter Krebs, a spaceflight historian and physicist, at the time of the heist, Luna 3 was likely spinning around the Earth at a distance of 310,000 miles, being gradually drawn into the Earth’s atmosphere. According to Jonathan McDowell, the Harvard astrophysicist, what they had most likely stolen was one of the Luna 2 craft which had not been part of a successful launch. 

The stolen information came at just the right time. Just months after the Luna caper, the US successfully orbited a CORONA spy satellite 17 times around the Earth. “Finally, after many, many failures, they got it working,” McDowell says. “It was a very, very big advance … and it completely transformed the arms race.” On August 19, 1960, another CORONA satellite sent a capsule back to Earth, where a US Air Force plane grabbed it in a mid-flight maneuver called an air snatch.

Inside the probe was a 20-pound reel of Kodak film capturing 1.65 million square miles of Soviet territory, including images of Soviet air bases. The CORONA images were low resolution, McDowell says, so having accessed the Luna helped the CIA know exactly what rockets they were looking down at. “Because you had actually seen the damn thing and held it in your hands,” he says. 

“The Air Force said ‘we need tens of thousands of missiles.’ And the CIA came along and went, ‘We’ve counted the Russians’ missiles and it’s not as bad as we thought.’”

“We’re used to thinking of the CIA as the bad guys, right?” said McDowell. “But, you know, the Air Force was like, ‘Oh, we need tens of thousands of missiles.’ And the CIA came along and went, ‘We’ve counted the Russians’ missiles and it’s not as bad as we thought.’” Knowing that the Soviets had far less rocket power than the CIA imagined took the edge off American paranoia. School children no longer hid under their desks, as the duck-and-cover program was slowly stepped down.

The Cold War rumbled on for decades, sometimes taking America to the brink of nuclear war. But the US quickly took the lead in the race to the moon. On May 5, 1961, NASA launched its Freedom 7 spacecraft, sending the first American astronaut into space, Alan Shepard. Winston Scott’s adopted son, Michael, told me he had always been puzzled by a signed photograph of Shepard he found in his father’s papers.

As for Luna 3, the actual probe that photographed the far side of the moon, its whereabouts are “not quite clear,” Krebs, the space historian, wrote in an email to me. Sometime before 1962, he added, it would have reentered Earth’s atmosphere and melted into an enormous fireball.

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SpaceX has successfully landed Starship after flight for the first time

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SpaceX has successfully landed Starship after flight for the first time


On March 3, SpaceX’s Starship pulled off a successful high-altitude flight—its third in a row. Unlike in the first two missions, the spacecraft stuck the landing. Then, as in the last two, the spacecraft blew up.

What happened: At around 5:14 p.m. US Central Time, the 10th Starship prototype (SN10) was launched from SpaceX’s test facility in Boca Chica, Texas, flying about 10 kilometers into the air before falling back down and descending safely to Earth. 

About 10 minutes later, the spacecraft blew up, from what appears to have been a methane leak. Still, the actual objectives of the mission were met.

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Rocket Lab could be SpaceX’s biggest rival

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Rocket Lab could be SpaceX’s biggest rival


In the private space industry, it can seem that there’s SpaceX and then there’s everyone else. Only Blue Origin, backed by its own billionaire founder in the person of Jeff Bezos, seems able to command the same degree of attention. And Blue Origin hasn’t even gone beyond suborbital space yet. 

Rocket Lab might soon have something to say about that duopoly. The company, founded in New Zealand and headquartered in Long Beach, California, is second only to SpaceX when it comes to launch frequency—the two are ostensibly the only American companies that regularly go to orbit. Its small flagship Electron rocket has flown 18 times in just under four years and delivered almost 100 satellites into space, with only two failed launches. 

On March 1, the company made its ambitions even clearer when it unveiled plans for a new rocket called Neutron. At 40 meters tall and able to carry 20 times the weight that Electron can, Neutron is being touted by Rocket Lab as its entry into markets for large satellite and mega-constellation launches, as well as future robotics missions to the moon and Mars. Even more tantalizing, Rocket Lab says Neutron will be designed for human spaceflight as well. The company calls it a “direct alternative” to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket

“Rocket Lab is one of the success stories among the small launch companies,” says Roger Handberg, a space policy expert at the University of Central Florida. “They are edging into the territory of the larger, more established launch companies now—especially SpaceX.”

That ambition was helped by another bit of news announced on March 1: Rocket Lab’s merger with Vector Acquisition Corporation. Joining forces with a special-purpose acquisition company, a type of company that ostensibly enables another business to go public without an IPO, will allow Rocket Lab to benefit from a massive influx of money that gives it a new valuation of $4.1 billion. Much of that money is going toward development and testing of Neutron, which the company wants to start flying in 2024.

It’s a bit of an about-face for Rocket Lab. CEO Peter Beck had previously been lukewarm about the idea of building a larger rocket that could launch bigger payloads and potentially offer launches for multiple customers at once. 

But the satellite market has embraced ride-share missions into orbit, especially given the rise of satellite mega-constellations, which will probably make up most satellites launched into orbit over the next decade. Neutron is capable of taking 8,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit, which means it could deliver potentially dozens of payloads to orbit at once. As a lighthearted mea culpa, the introductory video for Neutron showed Beck eating his own hat. 

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Recovering from the SolarWinds hack could take 18 months

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Recovering from the SolarWinds hack could take 18 months


SolarWinds Orion, the network management product that was targeted, is used in tens of thousands of corporations and government agencies. Over 17,000 organizations downloaded the infected back door. The hackers were extraordinarily stealthy and specific in targeting, which is why it took so long to catch them—and why it’s taking so long to understand their full impact.

The difficulty of uncovering the extent of the damage was summarized by Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, in a congressional hearing last week. 

“Who knows the entirety of what happened here?” he said. “Right now, the attacker is the only one who knows the entirety of what they did.”

Kevin Mandia, CEO of the security company FireEye, which raised the first alerts about the attack, told Congress that the hackers prioritized stealth above all else.

“Disruption would have been easier than what they did,” he said. “They had focused, disciplined data theft. It’s easier to just delete everything in blunt-force trauma and see what happens. They actually did more work than what it would have taken to go destructive.”

“This has a silver lining”

CISA first heard about a problem when FireEye discovered that it had been hacked and notified the agency. The company regularly works closely with the US government, and although it wasn’t legally obligated to tell anyone about the hack, it quickly shared news of the compromise with sensitive corporate networks.

It was Microsoft that told the US government federal networks had been compromised. The company shared that information with Wales on December 11, he said in an interview. Microsoft observed the hackers breaking into the Microsoft 365 cloud that is used by many government agencies. A day later, FireEye informed CISA of the back door in SolarWinds, a little-known but extremely widespread and powerful tool. 

This signaled that the scale of the hack could be enormous. CISA’s investigators ended up working straight through the holidays to help agencies hunt for the hackers in their networks.

These efforts were made even more complicated because Wales had only just taken over at the agency: days earlier, former director Chris Krebs had been fired by Donald Trump for repeatedly debunking White House disinformation about a stolen election. 

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