If you're any manner of space enthusiast, then you've no doubt encountered conspiracy-theory types who insist that the Moon landings were directed by Stanley Kubrick or that the Nazis had a swastika-shaped base on Mars. But it turns out those folks are trying way too hard, because the actual history of space exploration is rife with shady shit that would feel right at home on blogs full of animated GIFs warning about the Illuminati.
If a presidential candidate ran on a platform of "I want to dominate space by creating a ship that will eat other countries' spacecraft!!!" they would be roundly ridiculed. Or they would win in a landslide -- it's had to get sense of where the electorate is right now. Anyway, the point is that it's a crazy thing to think about ... until you realize that we really built such a thing, and it was called the Space Shuttle.
From the very earliest days of the Shuttle's design, NASA worked hand-in-hand with military intelligence on speccing out and prototyping the vehicle. Why would the military give a single space shit about a boring minivan of a spacecraft intended to study the orbital reproductive habits of ferrets? Well, because they saw it as a means to yoink Soviet satellites straight out of orbit and return them to Washington. Reading the history of the project, it's clear that they were anticipating a future full of space battles and daring snatch-and-grab operations:
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"They hoped to snare Soviet spacecraft in such a fashion -- and because Moscow might defend such assets by deploying an antisatellite weapon, the Air Force took the view that if the thing was to be done at all, it was best to do it quickly. A once-around [the Earth] mission could snare such a spacecraft and return safely by the time anyone realized it was missing."
And while the Shuttle may have never fulfilled its thiefly purpose (as far as we know), that doesn't mean it was any less a tool of the military. Nowhere was NASA's intelligence role more apparent than in the day-to-day espionage bullshit that astronauts had to deal with. With the Air Force, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the CIA all having their fingers equally jammed in the Space Shuttle pie, many of the Shuttle's flights were of the classified variety.
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The Air Force-NRO control center for these "secret" Space Shuttles was in sunny Sunnyvale, California. But no one was supposed to know that, and the astronauts involved in the missions weren't allowed to speak of the place by name and were forced to endure a roundabout Planes, Trains and Automobiles-style madcap adventure to get there undetected. Nonetheless, when the crew of the top-secret Mission 51C puttered up to their rundown motel in their nondescript rental car to report for training in 1984, they were greeted by a giant banner reading "WELCOME, 51C ASTRONAUTS." So maybe they couldn't have gotten away with the satellite-snatching thing after all.
When it comes to taking the other side's satellites out of orbit, the Soviets favored a more blunt approach: highly maneuverable, remote-controlled "killer" satellites that could approach enemy satellites and explode the everloving shit out of them. That's right: In the early 1960s, the Soviets were developing "Star Wars" weapons nearly two decades before the movie that would inspire the name by which the world remembers Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.
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While their initial plans for a satellite-killer involved manned space fighters armed with missiles, Soviet technology fortunately wasn't quite that awesome. Therefore, they had to crank down their sci-fi dial and instead focus their efforts on the Istrebitel Sputnikov -- "Satellite Destroyer." It was basically a spaceborne barrel o' shrapnel that could approach a target and go off like the unholy love child of a grenade and a shotgun.
This homing space bomb was controlled by a vast network of ground stations across Mother Russia that kept constant tabs on enemy satellites, and sported a guaranteed radius of doom ranging from 400 meters to two kilometers. And this wasn't merely a concept and an illustration that mommy satellites showed to baby satellites when they misbehaved -- in 1968, the Soviets blasted a test target into so much space Swiss cheese, and by 1978, the system was fully operational.
By 1991, the system had developed the ability to actively hunt down other satellites even if said satellites were capable of performing evasive maneuvers. Luckily, with the winding down of the Cold War, Boris Yeltsin soon pulled the plug on the entire project. Unluckily, there is legitimate speculation that Russia may have resurrected it as recently as 2014 -- though we find it more likely that Putin would've resurrected the manned space fighter idea instead.
It's going to seem like we're picking on the USSR here, but damned if they didn't pull some truly next-level conspiracy shit in their time. One of the more crackpot things they're accused of is the popular Lost Cosmonauts (or Phantom Cosmonauts) theory, which claims that they tried to cover up the very existence of certain cosmonauts after launching them straight into the great beyond. Except it doesn't seem so crackpot at all, really, when you realize that Russia did indeed attempt to erase certain cosmonauts from history, 1984-style.
First off, there's Valentin Bondarenko, a cosmonaut trainee who perished in a horrific fire during a training accident in 1961, but whose existence wasn't acknowledged until more than 20 years later, on the 25th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's famous first spaceflight. But while Bondarenko's story is undeniably tragic, the absolute poster boy of disappearing cosmonauts would have to be Grigoriy Nelyubov:
Nelyubov was initially among the top six cosmonaut candidates, but then got his ass booted from the program after he had the audacity to suffer a nervous breakdown during his rigorous training and then get a little rowdy in a bar during his recovery. After his ejection from the program, the Soviets summarily erased records of his ever having been in it to begin with, as well as airbrushing him out of any photographs of the group of space flight candidates. In fact, one of the most famous photographs from Yuri Gagarin's historic mission was cropped for the specific purpose of chopping Nelyubov's mug out of the background:
Nelyubov clung to a newspaper clipping of the group photo from which he'd been excised, often telling his wife Zinaida, "I already don't exist." As his former comrades blasted toward the stars, he fell ever deeper into depression and alcoholism, until on the night of February 18, 1966, he stepped in front of a screaming locomotive and allowed it to wipe him from history in an entirely too literal manner.
While it tends to play second (possibly third) fiddle to its moon-walking brethren, Apollo 8 was a vital stepping stone in America's race to plant a space-boot firmly in the Man in the Moon's eye. Not only was it the first manned flight of the Saturn V rocket, which would play an all-important role in reaching the lunar surface, but it was also the first time humans circled the moon. Understandably, the Soviet Union -- being America's opponent in the Space Race and all -- wasn't exactly doing a gleeful Russian squat-dance in honor of our clear progress. Much to the contrary, on December 16, 1968, just days before Apollo 8 was scheduled for takeoff, the KGB fucking sabotaged it.
Well, "sabotaged" is probably wording it a bit too strongly. In reality, what they did fell somewhere between the actions of a high-schooler desperate to get out of an exam and what you'd do if you found a deep-fried chicken toe in your McNuggets. They wrote an entirely fictitious letter claiming that the recipient's shit was about to blow the fuck up. Received by security officials at Kennedy Space Center, the letter described an anonymous source's airport encounter with "a tall husky fellow" who was "a Texan from his accent," who rattled off some technical jargon before declaring that Apollo 8 would transform into "a lovely Christmas [fire]cracker when it takes off."
NASA gave the letter precisely the amount of attention it deserved. That is, they chucked it straight into the circular file, and Apollo 8 went off with a glaring lack of sabotage. It was only 12 years later that former KGB operative Rudolph Herrmann revealed himself as the letter's author, even as he switched allegiance to the United States ... possibly because he frankly sort of sucked at being a KGB operative.
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"Intercepting moon signals" is one of those hobbies that most people give up once they start taking the right medication. But as we've found out, nothing was too crazy for the Cold War to turn into a reality. After World War II, when radar became common, military installations everywhere were blasting those signals into the sky around the clock. Normally, these signals continued on into outer space, but in 1946, the Army Signal Corps detected that some of them bounced off the freaking moon.
Signals intercepted via "Moon Bounce" could give the U.S. invaluable clues as to the location of things such as anti-ballistic missile systems within Russia -- information that was becoming ever more difficult to obtain, since flying over the Soviet Union was becoming a surefire way to lose yourself a fancy spy plane. The problem was that any signal bounced off the moon was weak -- "more than a million billion times weaker than if it were received in an airplane ten miles from the transmitter," to be exact. So the U.S. Navy set to building massive, 150-foot dishes at facilities in Norfolk, Virginia and Palo Alto, California, and then a whole slew of Navy engineers set to twiddling the absolute shit out of their thumbs.
In 1964, however, it finally paid off. That's when the Chesapeake Bay facility first intercepted a faint moon signal from an entirely new class of Soviet early warning systems known as "Hen House" radars. Efforts were transferred to the Palo Alto facility, where the CIA was able to gather details about the system -- its scanning mode, frequency spread, and peak power, to name a few. These details gave the U.S. invaluable clues as to how to find our way around the sophisticated new anti-ABM systems, should we ever decide to, you know, kick-start the apocalypse or whatever.
But hey, let's end this on a positive note: The discovery of Moon Bounce also led to a somewhat primitive communications project known as the Communication Moon Relay. And on January 28, 1960, this photograph of the U.S.S. Hancock was transmitted from Honolulu, Hawaii to Washington, D.C. by way of ping-ponging it off the moon:
This proof of concept led directly to the artificial communication satellites that enable our entire interconnected way of life today, thereby proving that nothing sparks human ingenuity quite like the looming threat of mutual assured destruction.
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