Inside the plot to steal Soviet planetary data


Lorenzo von Matterhorn
Jan 31, 2009
Reaction score
Inside the plot to steal Soviet planetary data
In the height of the Cold War, the NSA and CIA worked hard to undermine the USSR’s space program. They got a little boost from an unexpected place.

At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet space program held a tantalizing secret. They were furtively communicating with their spacecraft and interplanetary probes through a hidden, deep-space radio channel. Like the various radio channels that make up NASA’s own Deep Space Network, the missing link provided two-way communications between Soviet mission control and Soviet spacecraft. While the Americans knew it existed, they didn't know where or how to find it.

The Americans threw everything they had at the problem. Spies were sent to study Soviet displays at international space expositions. Signal intelligence experts endlessly probed for the radio link from secret listening stations near Soviet mission control in North Africa and the Middle East. CIA analysis scoured for clues in everything from satellite images, to Soviet propaganda, to offhand comments made by the Soviet colleagues of western scientists. Yet for 21 years — from 1962 until a fateful night in 1983 — the mystery persisted.

Only now, with the recent declassification of one NSA and two CIA reports, has the story emerged. Although the reports are heavily redacted, the story of this quest for the secret Soviet signal is nonetheless astonishing for two interconnected reasons. First, for the sheer depth of effort the Americans spent to uncover the radio signal. And second, for how inconsequential the signal, and the data it hid, actually was.