History

The Soviet spies who stole NASA's Space Shuttle

What do you think are major spy targets? Troop movements? Strategic plans? New weapon designs?

Sure, those are all great choices, but what about space shuttles and planetary probes?

Look closely and you'll notice that both of these things are Soviet AF.(Illustration from Soviet Military Power 1985, courtesy U.S. Armed Forces)

Rivals have always kept a close eye on America's space program, especially after the U.S. edged ahead of the Soviets in the '60s by first copying their manned orbit of the earth in 1962 and then beating them to the Moon in 1969.

For the Soviet Union, this presented a dire threat.


After all, while NASA and the Soviet's Federal Space Agency — now reorganized as a corporation and known as Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities — were both scientific enterprises, both did a little moonlighting for spy agencies and provided a lot of important technical know-how to spooks.

So, if NASA succeeded in its rumored attempt, beginning in 1972, to create a "Space Shuttle" that could cut the cost of placing items in orbit from $10,000 per pound to only $20, it was a safe bet that a new constellation of American spy satellites would suddenly bloom across the night sky. Vladimir Smirnov, head of the Military-Industrial Commission, even implied to his bosses that the Space Shuttle might be used as a space bomber against Moscow.

The Russians needed their own version of the craft — and quickly — if they were to remain competitive in space. But they burned up four years in bureaucratic squabbling.

In 1976, senior Soviet leadership finally signed the decree authorizing the program, and the Soviet-designed "Spiral" space plane was quickly removed from contention. Russia specifically wanted a weapon with all the same capabilities as the Shuttle, including the imagined ability to bomb enemy capitals.

Luckily for them, the U.S. put a lot of their shuttle data on its new-fangled internet, which was never designed to be a secure system and was already compromised by the Soviets. The VPK — an acronym using the Russian name of the Military-Industrial Commission — and the KGB scooped up all the documents they could find, then distributed them across the Soviet space program.

Unlike the American program, which was a civilian program expected to provide a space-bound Lyft to Department of Defense payloads every once in a while, the Soviet program was explicitly military and was aimed at copying the supposed military applications of the U.S. craft.

"It is no secret to anyone in our sector ... that the Energia-Buran system was ordered from us by the military," said Yuri Semenov, who worked on the boosters for the Soviet craft. "It was said at meetings on various levels that American shuttles, even on the first revolution, could perform a lateral maneuver and turn to be over Moscow, possibly with dangerous cargo. Parity is needed, we needed the same type of rocket-space system."

What resulted from all of this was a craft known as the Buran, Russian for 'blizzard,' that looked almost identical to the Space Shuttle.

"Space Shuttle Door Gunner" isn't as cool when they have them, too.

(U.S. Department of Defense photo by Master Sgt. Dave Casey)

But it actually had some nifty capabilities not found on the American version. For one, the Buran could conduct automated flights with no human occupants. In fact, it did so in its one and only flight in space in 1988.

Second, the Buran used Energia boosters, liquid-fueled boosters that were safer and more powerful — but more costly — than American solid-propellant boosters.

The only Buran that ever flew was destroyed in Kazakhstan during an earthquake in 2002. Some prototypes remain as static displays while others rust and rot away in abandoned hangars.

For those who believe that "history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme," China's current Mars and lunar programs have taken massive strides in recent years, starting right after a Chinese-American scientist on America's programs mysteriously resigned, returned to China, and began working on the Chinese programs.

Probably a coincidence.