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.
“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.
The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics
The Frost nails its uncanny, disconcerting vibe in its first few shots. Vast icy mountains, a makeshift camp of military-style tents, a group of people huddled around a fire, barking dogs. It’s familiar stuff, yet weird enough to plant a growing seed of dread. There’s something wrong here.
Welcome to the unsettling world of AI moviemaking. The Frost is a 12-minute movie from Detroit-based video creation company Waymark in which every shot is generated by an image-making AI. It’s one of the most impressive—and bizarre—examples yet of this strange new genre. Read the full story, and take an exclusive look at the movie.
—Will Douglas Heaven
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Microplastics are pretty much everywhere you look. These tiny pieces of plastic pollution, less than five millimeters across, have been found in human blood, breast milk, and placentas. They’re even in our drinking water and the air we breathe.
Given their ubiquity, it’s worth considering what we know about microplastics. What are they doing to us?
The short answer is: we don’t really know. But scientists have begun to build a picture of their potential effects from early studies in animals and clumps of cells, and new research suggests that they could affect not only the health of our body tissues, but our immune systems more generally. Read the full story.
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Here, bits of plastic can end up collecting various types of bacteria, which cling to their surfaces. Seabirds that ingest them not only end up with a stomach full of plastic—which can end up starving them—but also get introduced to types of bacteria that they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. It seems to disturb their gut microbiomes.
There are similar concerns for humans. These tiny bits of plastic, floating and flying all over the world, could act as a “Trojan horse,” introducing harmful drug-resistant bacteria and their genes, as some researchers put it.
It’s a deeply unsettling thought. As research plows on, hopefully we’ll learn not only what microplastics are doing to us, but how we might tackle the problem.
Read more from Tech Review’s archive
It is too simplistic to say we should ban all plastic. But we could do with revolutionizing the way we recycle it, as my colleague Casey Crownhart pointed out in an article published last year.
We can use sewage to track the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as I wrote in a previous edition of the Checkup. At this point, we need all the help we can get …
… which is partly why scientists are also exploring the possibility of using tiny viruses to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections. Phages were discovered around 100 years ago and are due a comeback!
Our immune systems are incredibly complicated. And sex matters: there are important differences between the immune systems of men and women, as Sandeep Ravindran wrote in this feature, which ran in our magazine issue on gender.
Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.
Fast and cheap
Artists are often the first to experiment with new technology. But the immediate future of generative video is being shaped by the advertising industry. Waymark made The Frost to explore how generative AI could be built into its products. The company makes video creation tools for businesses looking for a fast and cheap way to make commercials. Waymark is one of several startups, alongside firms such as Softcube and Vedia AI, that offer bespoke video ads for clients with just a few clicks.
Waymark’s current tech, launched at the start of the year, pulls together several different AI techniques, including large language models, image recognition, and speech synthesis, to generate a video ad on the fly. Waymark also drew on its large data set of non-AI-generated commercials created for previous customers. “We have hundreds of thousands of videos,” says CEO Alex Persky-Stern. “We’ve pulled the best of those and trained it on what a good video looks like.”
To use Waymark’s tool, which it offers as part of a tiered subscription service starting at $25 a month, users supply the web address or social media accounts for their business, and it goes off and gathers all the text and images it can find. It then uses that data to generate a commercial, using OpenAI’s GPT-3 to write a script that is read aloud by a synthesized voice over selected images that highlight the business. A slick minute-long commercial can be generated in seconds. Users can edit the result if they wish, tweaking the script, editing images, choosing a different voice, and so on. Waymark says that more than 100,000 people have used its tool so far.
The trouble is that not every business has a website or images to draw from, says Parker. “An accountant or a therapist might have no assets at all,” he says.
Waymark’s next idea is to use generative AI to create images and video for businesses that don’t yet have any—or don’t want to use the ones they have. “That’s the thrust behind making The Frost,” says Parker. “Create a world, a vibe.”
The Frost has a vibe, for sure. But it is also janky. “It’s not a perfect medium yet by any means,” says Rubin. “It was a bit of a struggle to get certain things from DALL-E, like emotional responses in faces. But at other times, it delighted us. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic happening before our eyes.’”
This hit-and-miss process will improve as the technology gets better. DALL-E 2, which Waymark used to make The Frost, was released just a year ago. Video generation tools that generate short clips have only been around for a few months.
The most revolutionary aspect of the technology is being able to generate new shots whenever you want them, says Rubin: “With 15 minutes of trial and error, you get that shot you wanted that fits perfectly into a sequence.” He remembers cutting the film together and needing particular shots, like a close-up of a boot on a mountainside. With DALL-E, he could just call it up. “It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “That’s when it started to be a real eye-opening experience as a filmmaker.”