After my brother and I unexpectedly and rather accidentally discovered a secret Yugoslav submarine port in Montenegro (please read that story first, otherwise this one won’t make any sense), we were still completely excited and out of our minds until late into the night. We probably even drank a glass of Rakia or Amaro Montenegro. Or rather half a glass each, because we are sensible guys.
The next evening, I met with a Montenegrin friend who, for some unfathomable reason, had not yet noticed how cool and adventurous I was. So I proudly, enthusiastically, extensively and possibly with some embellishment told her about our adventure in the submarine base, on board of the warships and in the sights of the Montenegrin naval snipers.
Because my idea of romantic relationships is based solely on James Bond movies, I thought that she would reply: “Oh, Andreas, you’re such a hero! But if the Montenegrin Navy is after you, you will have to go into hiding. Luckily, I have a cozy cabin in the mountains, where we can hide for a few years.”
In reality, she said: “Oh, the submarine tunnels near Luštica? I sometimes swim all the way out there in the summer.” She said it in the same tone one would use to convey the information that one had stopped by the grocer on the way home to get some milk.
I was glad that it was winter, otherwise she might have invited me to join her and would have realized that I don’t know how to swim at all.
And then she suggested: “If you are interested in such places, you should visit the military airport near Željava. That was the largest underground air base in the world.”
“How can an airport be underground?” I asked, obviously as inexperienced in airports as I am in other things.
“Željava is located in the Plješevica mountains. The runways are above ground, of course, but the hangars are built into the mountain. And the pilots can start their takeoff underground, so they spend as little time as possible on the tarmac once they leave the mountain.” That is useful when you are worried about enemy missiles.
Željava is the actual foundation for the fictional enemy military base deep in the mountains in “Top Gun: Maverick”.
“We could actually visit it, because it’s all abandoned now. However, the area lies directly on the border between Croatia and Bosnia, so there are still mines everywhere in the forest.” Because Croatia is rather unfriendly to refugees, Afghans, Syrians and Iranians now spend the winter in these concrete bunkers. From time to time, one of them steps on a landmine and explodes. It is always sad to see when countries are hostile towards refugees, although, just a few years ago, their own population had to seek safety from a war.
And then she said, offhandedly: “The complex in Željava is also where the Yugoslav space program was developed.”
I didn’t say anything, but I guess you could tell that the existence of a Yugoslav space program was news to me. As it probably is to you.
And so I learned that Yugoslavia had the third largest space program after the USA and the USSR. But that Yugoslavia needed money and therefore sold its space program to the USA. That the families of Yugoslav engineers were told that their fathers, husbands or sons had died, but in fact they moved to Florida. And that NASA could fly to the moon only thanks to Yugoslav technology and experts.
If I did not believe it, I should simply look up which country was the first to be visited by the astronauts of Apollo 11 after their return, my friend said. She was right: Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin paid tribute to Yugoslavia. And why were Tito and Kennedy such close friends?
However, there seems to have been a problem. Some say that Yugoslavia had fudged the calculations, which is why quite a few Apollo missions blew up at launch. Others say that the CIA was against cooperation with Yugoslavia, which is why it was no coincidence that Kennedy was shot a month after his last meeting with Tito. Some say that the USA demanded that Yugoslavia pay back the billions received, and that this is precisely what led to Yugoslavia’s bankruptcy and consequent breakup. Others blame the USA for a more active role in that breakup, allegedly out of revenge for the space fraud.
I bet you are eager to learn more about all of this. In this case, I recommend the movie “Houston, we have a Problem!”
However, I don’t know where the film is playing. Apparently it’s nowhere to be found on the western interweb. Which is again pretty suspicious. Good thing I saw it back in Montenegro…