During the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, Soviet spacecraft returning from their missions landed in Siberia—and then the cosmonauts who had manned those vessels often left the sites strapped to the side of a boat.
This was not just any boat. The brainchild of the USSR’s foremost aircraft designer, Andrei Tupolev (1888–1972), it was in fact a watercraft that could fly just above the ground. Tupolev had developed his country’s first long-range strategic bomber (the Tu-95), its first jet airliner (the Tu-104), and its first supersonic airplane (the Tu-144). And in 1961, he created the top-secret N007, a vessel that can skim over water, marshland, ice, and snow at a maximum speed of about 80 mph.
Powered by a 9-cylinder, 365 hp engine used in Sukhoi aircraft, the Tupolev N007 has a two-part, four-bladed propeller that provides about 25 percent more power than conventional designs. The engine is started with compressed air, which does not freeze, allowing the craft to operate in temperatures as cold as -70 degrees Fahrenheit. The vessel is shaped like an airplane wing, a feature that, with the help of a leading-edge flap, creates enough lift to raise it about a foot in the air at high speeds.
Tupolev originally did not design the N007 for retrieving cosmonauts. The craft did not have enough room for someone in a bulky space suit to sit with three other occupants (a pilot, a mechanic, and a doctor), and Tupolev could not increase the size of the vessel, as it had to remain small enough to be ferried around Siberia by helicopter. Undaunted, he designed an apparatus on the boat’s exterior to hold a man. Once a cosmonaut emerged from his capsule, his handlers would lash him to the apparatus.
It is not known how many N007s were built, but by 1999, one had ended up in the hands of a Russian military officer. The vessel was in bad shape: It did not float, the engine would not start, and the nose was crumpled. Nevertheless, retired German businessman Jürgen Schulte recognized the craft’s historical value and purchased it.
Schulte, a warm and effusive man, sounds quite fond of his top-secret cosmonaut retrieval vessel. “I spent a fortune on it,” he says. “I had the propeller overhauled and sent the engine back to the original factory in Romania. A Karmann Ghia metal craftsman fixed the nose. And now the boat is beautiful.” He pauses, then continues a bit sadly: “But I’m 64 now, and getting a little old for this.”
On January 20, therefore, Schulte will offer his N007 for sale at the 36th annual Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction in Scottsdale, Ariz. The craft is not a car, of course, but Barrett-Jackson president Craig Jackson does not consider this a drawback. “We’ve added to our offerings over the years,” he notes. “Dutch paintings, rock-and-roll guitars . . . .” As a mark of his faith in the N007, Jackson has given the craft the same lot number (1307) that he assigned to a 1950 General Motors bus called the Futurliner, which commanded the highest price at last year’s event (about $4.3 million). The N007 comes with its original owner’s manual and tool kit, as well as a large radio that no one can figure out how to operate, presumably because it too was top secret.
As for Schulte, he conveys mixed feelings about parting with his vessel. “I want to sell her, but I don’t want to sell her,” he says. “You understand.”
Barrett-Jackson Auction Co.