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NSRC 2020

 
Complex J model
The model of the Complex J launch site at Tyura-Tam. Note the Saturn 5 and Washington Monument in the lower-left corner of the model, used to provide scale. (credit: D. Day)

Rockets, real and model-sized

It does not snow much at Tyura-Tam, the vast sprawling launch range in Kazakhstan now known as Baikonur. The broad flat terrain is also windy, and what snow does fall often blows away. However, during the height of the Cold War, workers at the complex would occasionally go out into the freshly fallen snow and stomp out a message with their boots. “Privyet Amerikantsi!” (“Hello Americans!”) they would write. And if they were feeling a little more ambitious and a little less friendly, they would write “Yob tvoyu mat Amerikantsi!” in Cyrillic letters. It is the kind of phrase that starts fights in bars.

American spy satellites would glide silently overhead, their sophisticated cameras slowly dragging a wide strip of film past an aperture, recording the image. Within a week or so the film was in Washington, at the National Photographic Interpretation Center—NPIC (or “enpic”)—where a highly-trained expert unrolled it on his light table and looked at it through a microscope—and if he read Russian, he laughed.

The photo-interpreters had the job of turning the images they saw on the two-dimensional film into intelligence reports. Did they see new construction? New ditches and roads? Did they see building foundations that had not been there the last time a satellite had flown past? Did they perhaps get obscenely lucky and actually spot a Soviet rocket on its launch pad?

They had colleagues who performed other tasks. There were photo-grammetrists who took measurements of the images. What was the distance between facilities? (Useful to know when targeting ICBMs.) How many square feet did the buildings contain? How high were the launch towers?

Sometime in 1968, model-builders at NPIC started a new job. They built a model of Complex J, the massive launch facility that the Soviet Union had constructed for their giant Moon rocket, which we now know as the N-1 but that the CIA had labeled the “J Vehicle.”

There were also artists who took this information and paper prints of the images and made drawings to better illustrate what was on the film. The pictures were all black and white, and often a gray building was not easy to distinguish against a different shade of gray background. So an artist could help, and could also extrapolate what a building would look like from another angle.

Then there were the model-builders. Their task was to take the intelligence information and produce a three-dimensional model of a particular object or facility. Sometimes this meant building a model missile, or a ship. However, usually it meant producing a terrain model of something important, like an ICBM complex.

Sometime in 1968, model-builders at NPIC started a new job. They built a model of Complex J, the massive launch facility that the Soviet Union had constructed for their giant Moon rocket, which we now know as the N-1 but that the CIA had labeled the “J Vehicle.” They left out the Russian profanity stomped in the snow, but they included everything else.

Tyura-Tam was one of the top ten targets for American spy satellites because it was the primary launch complex for Soviet rockets and missiles. In particular, it was the first place that new missiles would appear. The actual missiles themselves were rarely spotted in satellite photos. The Soviets adopted launch processing procedures that took place indoors, moving a rocket out to the launch pad for no more than a few days or even hours before launch, unlike the American approach, where rockets could sit on the launch pad for days, weeks, or even months. In fact, American spy satellites went so long without spotting a Soviet SS-6 rocket—the famed R-7 or Sputnik rocket—that they began to suspect that the Soviets deliberately kept it hidden from passing spy satellites, and in 1963 the CIA even considered developing a stealthy spy satellite to try and catch it in the open. The CIA never developed that satellite. Although the Soviets had launched R-7s hundreds of times during the 1960s, the first time the Americans spotted it was when the Soviet Union sent a full-scale mockup to Paris in 1967 for the Paris Air Show.

What the Americans usually saw at Tyura-Tam were not the rockets themselves but new facilities indicating that a new rocket or missile was about to be tested. They designated each new launch facility by a successive letter. The first facility, the pad where Sputnik, Laika, and Yuri Gagarin had all lifted off, was called Complex A. The Americans designated the second facility Complex B, the third Complex C, and so forth. Complex G was a big sprawling facility with several different types of launch pads devoted to both missiles and space rockets. It was the spot where the Soviets fired the large Proton rockets.

The Soviets started constructing a new large complex in spring 1963 and the Americans detected the excavation almost immediately. But it was not until a year or so later that the photo-interpreters were confident that the unprecedented construction that they were watching was actually a launch complex, which they designated Complex J. For the next several years they monitored the construction, puzzled by the relatively slow pace. NPIC issued annual reports on Complex J, discussing the major developments there. By mid-1968 the facility was essentially complete, and this is apparently when the CIA model-maker built the model of the launch pads and surrounding infrastructure.

The model was not huge. But it had to be big enough both to include the twin launch towers and provide a sense of scale of the facility. About three meters square, it depicted both launch pads, including their distinct trifoil flame trenches, and the swiveling launch towers. It also clearly showed off the tracks for the rocket transporter, which split in a “Y” to service the two pads from a long track that ran to the large “Missile Assembly Building” or MAB where the rocket’s stages and payload were all integrated. The model also showed the vast concrete expanse between the two pads that concealed an extensive tank farm that had been duly photographed by passing satellites before it was covered over with thousands of tons of concrete.

The model-maker also built two models of the rocket itself. One was all-white. The other was gray at the bottom with a white upper half and depicted a second vehicle spotted by the Americans at the launch complex.

Like so many things associated with space exploration—distance, velocity, size, and energy—adjectives fail miserably. Calling Complex J big, or putting a scale indicator on the model, failed to convey its true size. So the model-maker put two other objects in the model to help the viewer. These were a scale model of the American Saturn 5 rocket, and a model of the Washington Monument. Because the model was top secret and intended only for a special audience in Washington, DC, the Washington Monument was something that the viewers could more easily identify with—many of them merely had to look out their office windows.

Like so many things associated with space exploration—distance, velocity, size, and energy—adjectives fail miserably. Calling Complex J big, or putting a scale indicator on the model, failed to convey its true size.

How and when the model was displayed remains unknown. These kinds of models were intended for elite audiences, like the President or a small number of members of Congress who served on committees that had oversight of military or space issues. They controlled the budgets for projects like the Apollo program, which at the time was spending a huge amount of money. Show the decisionmakers a model, and suddenly the Soviet threat on the other side of the world seemed more real.

Today that model is on display in the CIA’s museum at its headquarters in Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC. Access to the building is tightly controlled, and outsiders can only visit the museum by special arrangement. Many visitors walk right past the model without realizing what it is, or the fact that it represents a major chapter in the long-forgotten space race of the 1960s.


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