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Did the Americans buy Yugoslavia’s space program during the Cold War?

Goran Blazeski

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win…”

John F. Kennedy

September 12, 1962

The end of World War II, far from bringing peace, ushered in a new period of global conflict – The Cold War.

At the center of the Cold War were the military and political tensions between powers in the Western bloc, headed by the USA, and the Eastern bloc, lead by the Soviet Union.

The Cold War was marked by a series of proxy wars, mostly in third world countries, where the Western and Eastern blocs supported and supplied opposing sides; a competition of political and military might played out through third parties.

In the late 1950s, another competition between the two Cold War rivals began – the Space Race.

Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford and cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov shake hands in space to ease cold war tensions.

Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford and cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov shake hands in space to ease cold war tensions.

At first, the Soviet Union was more successful, launching Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, in 1957, and sending the first human into space; Yuri Gagarin in 1961. But then, on July 20th, 1969, the US landed the first humans on the Moon with Appolo 11. The Americans had won the race to the Moon and now they were leading the Space Race.

From the moment the moon landing was first announced, conspiracy theories appeared claiming that some or all elements of the Appolo program were hoaxes staged by NASA with the aid of other organisations.

Astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong in NASA's training mockup of the Moon and lander module. Conspiracy theorists say that the films of the missions were made using sets similar to this training mockup.

Astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong in NASA’s training organisations Moon and lander module. Conspiracy theorists say that the films of the missions were made using sets similar to this training mockup.

We are all familiar with the conspiracy theories concerning the landing on the moon, but there is another less internationally known myth claiming that President John F. Kennedy and the U.S. government pulled off the mission of landing on the moon by purchasing Yugoslavia’s space program in the early ’60s. Ziga Virc, a young Slovenian director, investigates this myth in his documentary Houston we have a problem.

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Apparently, the USA and the Soviet Union weren’t the only ones trying to land on the moon. There was another participant in the Space Race; Tito’s Yugoslavia had a secret space program and the US paid $2.5 billion to buy it in its entirety, under the mistaken impression that it was far more advanced that it really was.

Richard Nixon with Tito at the White House, 1971

Richard Nixon with Tito at the White House, 1971

The documentary claims that the US bought the Yugoslavian space program from Yugoslav strongman Tito in March 1961, not long before President Kennedy announced the American lunar landing program. The director of this documentary, Ziga Virc, used declassified top-secret documents to uncover the behind-closed-doors dealings between President John F. Kennedy and Tito. A lot of documents from the 1960s were declassified in the past few years, which grant a much clearer picture of what happened in the 60’s.

President John F. Kennedy delivers his proposal to put a man on the Moon before a joint session of Congress, May 25, 1961

President John F. Kennedy delivers his proposal to put a man on the Moon before a joint session of Congress, May 25, 1961

The Yugoslavian secret space program was based on the work of Herman Potocnik, a Slovenian artillery officer who wrote a book The Problem of Space TravelThe book contained revolutionary ideas about space travel, but everything was lost until the end of the World War II when the Yugoslavian intelligence services found Potocnik’s documents and immediately informed Tito about their potential importance.

The documents were examined by Yugoslavian experts and they concluded that the documents consisted of detailed instructions about how to build a spacecraft that could take humans to the moon. Tito himself came to a conclusion that the documents might be very important for his country, which was then caught up between the USA and the USSR in the Cold War. So, he ordered work to start on the Yugoslav space program immediately.

Herman Potocnik (1892-1929) photo

Herman Potocnik (1892-1929) photo

The Yugoslavs started looking for a location to test their space technology, so they build the so-called “Object 505,” a gigantic underground air force base, which was perfect for the purpose. The Yugoslavs were confident that their project would be better than Soviet’s “Sputnik.”

As it’s said in the documentary that they build a rocket with a small module, in which they put a live pig. The project was called “Triglav 1” and it was based on Potocnik’s documents. After launch, the rocket reached the stratosphere and the module fell in Adriatic sea close to Italy. The pig survived the fall. Unfortunately, the space program was too expensive for such young country as Yugoslavia and to pursue it further would have meant bankruptcy.

Entrance to the Object 505. Photo Credit

Entrance to the Object 505. Photo Credit

Finance wasn’t a problem for the Americans as it was for Yugoslavia. They had the money, but they weren’t making enough technological progress. When JFK became president of the US he was under pressure to get something done. The CIA informed Kennedy about the Yugoslavian space program, which was supposedly similar to the American program. After he heard about the Yugoslavian space program, Kennedy sent the experienced diplomat William Averell Harriman to Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

NASA officials later visited Yugoslavia and as it’s said in the documentary they were very impressed with the Yugoslavian space program. They assumed that it was a very advanced program and that the technology was also advanced.

William H. Pickering, (center) JPL Director, President John F. Kennedy, (right). NASA Administrator James E. Webb (background) discussing the Mariner program, with a model presented.

William H. Pickering, (center) JPL Director, President John F. Kennedy, (right). NASA Administrator James E. Webb (background) discussing the Mariner program, with a model presented.

Tito decided to offer the space program to the Americans to buy, knowing that they were desperate since they were lagging behind the Soviet Union in the space race. After long hours of negotiation, the Yugoslavs sold the entire space program to the Americans for 2.5 billion dollars (About $50 billion today). It was said that the money was given to Yugoslavia for its development. The deal was done.

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Thousands of pieces of equipment were sent to the US by boat through Morrocco. After the deal was done, suddenly the standard of living in Yugoslavia rose and became the highest in the socialist world.

Progress in the Space Race, showing the US passing the Soviets in 1965. Photo Credit

Progress in the Space Race, showing the US passing the Soviets in 1965. Photo Credit

The Americans bought the Yugoslav technology, but there was only one problem – it didn’t work. The Americans were furious. The Yugoslavs had managed to sell them an underdeveloped program. Tito visited Kennedy in 1963, and Kennedy demanded that the Yugoslavians either fix the technology or give back the money.

Tito was the last president to visit America and meet Kennedy, since Kennedy was assassinated the following month. Kennedy’s death didn’t mean that the Americans would forget about the deal and the billions of dollars that they had given to Yugoslavia for a space program that didn’t work.

Picture of President Kennedy in the limousine in Dallas, Texas, on Main Street, minutes before the assassination. Also in the presidential limousine are Jackie Kennedy, Texas Governor John Connally, and his wife, Nellie.

Picture of President Kennedy in the limousine in Dallas, Texas, on Main Street, minutes before the assassination. Also in the presidential limousine are Jackie Kennedy, Texas Governor John Connally, and his wife, Nellie.

Lyndon Johnson was the next president of USA and, like Kennedy, he was under huge pressure to do something about the space race. The Yugoslavs sent 26 engineers to the US to help the Americans with the program. The engineers were given new identities and told that they couldn’t contact their families.

The Yugoslavian engineers were a valuable asset for NASA, and some of them even advanced to the highest levels of the organisation. A few years later, the Apollo mission began, and the Americans landed on the moon in 1969.

Armstrong on the Moon

Armstrong on the Moon

The Apollo crew visited Belgrade, along with sent negotiating team. The money they gave to Yugoslavia now became a loan, and the conflict between the US and Yugoslavia grew more intense. Tito was furious that the Americans changed the conditions of the deal, and he threatened that he would leak details of the Americsns’ incompetence to the Soviets.

Yugoslavia couldn’t afford to pay the Americans back, so Tito started looking for ways to get hold of the money. He ordered that a luxury car be made for export to America in order to raise the funds.

The new Yugo was introduced to America and it was known as one of the worst automobiles in the American history. The situation was just getting worse.

After the failure of the Yugo, the Americans decided to employ less legitimate methods. It’s said in the documentary that the US plan was to destabilize Yugoslavia by supporting democratic opposition parties and eventually dissolve the country in an easily manageable way, siphoning their money back out of the collapsing nation in the process.

11 years after Josip Broz Tito died, Yugoslavia did indeed break apart, leading to the brutal, bloody Yugoslav wars.

As the director of the documentary says: “[This is] an example of chaotic and complex facts that never made it to the popular history. When these facts are connected into a myth claiming it was all because of a Yugoslav space program, suddenly everything falls into place. Whether it was true or not, I leave that up to the audience to decide.” 

Watch the trailer bellow for this energetic and entertaining documentary and be sure that when you watch the documentary it will teach you to watch and consume other news reports more carefully than before, no matter how prettily they are presented to you.