by Patricia Stambuk
A North American Air Force base installed on Easter Island in the 1960s was part of a project of espionage on the Soviet Union from space. The journalist Patricia Stambuk clarifies all doubts with recently declassified documents from Washington: “Rapa Nui formed part of the larger scenario of the Cold War, without having a say in the matter. The ‘gringos’ left because the war in Vietnam had broken their budget and the technology of NASA was finally superior to that of manned spy spaceships which might need rescuing in the Pacific Ocean. The election of Allende (a communist, as president of Chile) was the last straw”
The older Rapanui can still remember the sign with the solemn name that was given to the American base that was installed in the mid-1960s in the area of Mataveri: Center for Ionospheric Research. Even though the name led one to believe that the presence of the US Air Force on the most isolated island on the plant was purely scientific, on the same sign it said: “Welcome. Military Zone. Controlled Entry”.
The permanent members of the US Air Force who arrived between 1966 and 1970 never were more than one hundred and were rotated for periods of differing duration. They dressed in civilian clothing; they were polite and friendly; they paid for drinks in the bars and took gifts to the houses that they visited; they became part of the local festivities and invited to their “Open House” parties at the base cafeteria. The local girls went well dressed to look for a change of pace, to chat, to flirt, to share a Coca Cola and to dance rock-n-roll.
Romantic encounters were inevitable. Several airmen became absent fathers of at least 10 Rapanui children, to which another 3 were added on the part of other Americans. Today those children are all around 50 years old and still live on the Island, many of them lamenting that they never knew their father and never received recognition nor protection from the United States government.
Most members of the USAF were unaware of the true objective of the base, as has been confirmed in interviews with some of the non-commissioned officers of the time. Each one did his job and asked no further. The members of the Chilean Air Force were also left in the dark. They handled local control and recorded radiation from the French nuclear tests on Mururoa, always keeping in mind the possibility of an evacuation. The secret of espionage from space was reserved to a limited circle of high ranking military officers, diplomats and intelligence services.
All this, which began with the arrival in 1966 of the first ships with material to build the asphalt airstrip until the departure of the Americans in 1970, was studied and revealed in the book “Iorana & Goodbye. Una base yanqui en Rapa Nui (Iorana and Goodbye. A Yankee base on Rapa Nui)” (Stambuk, Pehuén Editores, 2016). When the book was on the presses, the awaited declassification by the US government occurred of 825 secret documents from the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), created in 1961 for the development and operating of a system of satellites, together with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The previous year, 1960, the Soviet Union had shot down an American U-2 spy plane for violating their air space and arrested the pilot, Francis Gary Powers. The CIA didn’t want a repeat of that embarrassment.
The newly declassified documents confirm that the US Air Force developed a large, costly project called Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) to put into space a ship which could detect missiles and Soviet installations. They emphasized that the project was “a grave issue, of national importance” and that all information should be “protected under special security proceedings”.
They needed an airport in the Pacific Ocean from where their Hercules planes and their helicopters could rescue the capsule and its crew from the sea if the mission should fail for whatever reason. They had to be sure. The pilot who was captured by the Soviets in 1960 didn’t follow procedures in destroying his plane if caught nor in using the suicide shot inside a silver dollar that was given to all high-risk missions.
Within all this drama, they selected Easter Island, since the cost of building a base there was less than on Henderson Island, one of the Pitcairn group. President Johnson approved the DORIAN/MOL project in 1965, with the specific objectives that had been presented by his Secretary of Defense, Robert MacNamara. The first of these was “to photograph military objectives” at a higher resolution than had been previously possible.
In between all the discussions on the convenience of manned missions or unmanned missions, and with the heavy competition between the US Air Force and NASA over command in space, the United States managed to spend some 2.2 billion dollars on the project. There was design and construction, training of astronauts and even an experimental launch. Easter Island was ready with an airstrip which could take landings and take-offs of the Hercules planes needed for rescue. The Island and the country of Chile had become part of the larger scenario of the Cold War.
The Rapanui once were warriors, but from other battles, and they had no idea of the objective of the base. They were content with the American presence: a lot of clothing arrived with many products unknown or unobtainable up to then; there was paid work and there was fun; it was a window into a different world. Except that President Nixon closed the first window in June of 1969 when he canceled the MOL project, ending the last opportunity for the US Air Force to develop its own project for space travel. Vietnam had dragged on much longer than expected and the cost was enormous. NASA advanced with unmanned satellite technology and there was no longer any justification for the planned 7 launches with astronauts nor the deployment of 5 HC-130H planes to Easter Island for each launch. The election of Allende (as President of Chile) sealed the withdrawal of the Americans in 1970. It was easy, because a letter of agreement signed only on July 26, 1968 by the representatives of the US Air Force and their Chilean counterparts was the only support for a unique foreign presence in the history of the country.