Real-Life Rogue One: How the Soviets Stole NASA’s Shuttle Plans

By Eric Betz | December 14, 2016 11:54 am
buran

An artist’s illustration of the Buran shuttle. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the decrepit ruins of a Cold War-era Kazakhstani hangar, buried beneath decades of detritus, there’s a spaceship that was once the last hope of the Soviet space empire.

And you’d be forgiven for confusing the Buran shuttles (Russian for “snowstorm”) with say, America’s iconic Space Shuttle Enterprise, which is proudly displayed in a Manhattan museum. Their shapes, sizes and technology are almost identical, apart from the sickle and hammer.

But unlike the American shuttle, which flew 135 times before being mothballed over safety issues and absurd costs, Buran flew just once. The Soviet space program spent itself out of business as the USSR collapsed 25 years ago this month. And with Russia’s interference in American elections, the tale of the hacked space shuttle plans is worth revisiting. Not even Lucasfilm could cook up a plot this rich.

Epic Intrigue

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Russian KGB spies systematically stole NASA shuttle designs and smuggled them back to their motherland, as detailed in a 1997 NBC News investigation by journalist Robert Windrem. Later, as America tested its new cosmic vessel, Soviet aircraft and satellites flew reconnaissance missions to aide their own carbon copy.

The American Shuttle Program was never designed or intended to support weaponry. But early on, some Soviet military leaders saw it as a space bomber, capable of materializing over Moscow with nuclear weapons. Those defense leaders used that fear to secure enormous funding for their own shuttle. Even as the East and West negotiated a treaty to prevent weaponizing space, the Russian military ordered a space shuttle of its own.

But instead of building off a Soviet space plane they’d tested more than a decade earlier, Red military leaders thought it best to do what the Americans were doing — construct a hulking and pricey, all-purpose space truck. And because NASA’s shuttle tech wasn’t classified, the Soviets helped themselves to it — saving billions.

A Little Too Easy

Early on, spies would simply head out from the Soviet embassy and purchase copies of publicly available documents from the Government Printing Office. Later, they used computer hacking to cull reams of information — thousands of documents — from the American government, stealing the designs on everything from propulsion to airframes and computer systems. The spies even targeted universities with related research.

“The massive effort directed at the U.S. space shuttle program was among the first cases of Internet espionage, if not the first case,” Windrem wrote in ’97.

Hoodwinked

Once American spy agencies got wise, they banded together to strike back. The CIA started feeding flawed shuttle designs — NASA rejects — to the Soviet spies, which they passed off as new “improvements.” It worked. Included in the phonies were outdated heat shield designs that could have risked the spacecraft burning up on reentry.

The entire two-part ‘97 NBC News investigation reads like a spy thriller packed with unbelievably bold espionage and counter-espionage, executions, the collapse of a great and terrible empire, and defunct spaceships. Consider it a warm-up for the Star Wars premiere.

And if you still want more Cold War reminiscing, you can read my December feature in Discover, “The Last Soviet Citizen,” on the tale of cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who watched his country crumble from orbit in ’91, paving the way for US-Russian cooperation in space.

Eric Betz is an associate editor of Discover. He’s on Twitter @ericbetz

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  • OWilson

    Looks like the Cold War has been “RESET”.

    You may want to re-think that ride you are hitching for our astronauts, with Putin, to the Space Station.

    Let’s take NASA away from Global Warming and Muslim Outreach, and concentrate on actual space technology again. :)

    • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

      Islam: misery = k(Allah), k → 1

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    The Space Scuttle was hopeless garbage no matter how the Soviets calculated. The major payload was the Concorde-useless Space Scuttle. Given disbelief at high levels, the Soviets built their own, Buran, which was hopeless garbage to spec.

    The original Space Scuttle, with EMP-proof woven ferrite core memory, had a cargo bay that fit a pair of megaton-scale nuclear warheads and addenda. It was a fast-response low orbital jump bomber when Soviet air defense detection was aimed north and could not intercept 100 miles altitude at Mach 25.

    • OWilson

      Putting a man on the moon in the last century was simply a PR triumph for Capitalism over Communism during the Cold War. There was no other valid reason for a manned flight.

      Likewise Putin can strut as the world see him taking Obama’s astronauts to the Space Station for him.

      JFK would not be pleased! :)

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        The lunar retro-reflectors were worth the trip re Apache Observatory and lunar laser ranging,

  • Igor Rozenberg

    Links are broken

  • Jim Oberg

    Cool stories, always worth revisiting. Good work!

  • CharlesHouston

    This was a very interesting article, however there are several web pages that detail the significant differences between the Space Shuttle and the Buran. Also, hopefully a real expert like Jim Oberg will tune in and mention the several glaring mistakes in this article – for one “Buran” was the name of one of the Soviet vehicles. One detail that the story gets right is that Buran means “snowstorm” in Russian. So there is no such thing as “the Buran shuttles” – the article should have pointed out at least one difference such as the fact that the main engines were on the Soviet external tank instead of the vehicle.

    It was also sort of interesting to read the almost-coherent responses by Uncle Al and OWilson. Their tin hats are way to tight! Those two seem to suffer from delusions that they are adequate.

    • robi sen

      All good points. Also the liquid fuel system the Russians used was the same as the original US design. It’s safer and better in most ways but more expensive

  • Allen Lewis

    The articlestarts with “And with Russia’s interference in American elections….” There is zero evidence that Russia hacked the Election. It disgusts me that this magazine printed an article that plays right into the Liberal narative. Keep your liberal political opinions to yourselves and write science stories without pushing an agenda!

    • zbecktx

      17 US intelligence agencies agree that Russia interfered… must be completely wrong and without basis.

      • MrNico

        You have a list of these ’17 intel agencies’ we allegedly have?

      • OWilson

        If ALL U.S. Intelligence Agencies agreed that a Russian conspired coup put a Russian puppet into the White House, they wouldn’t have kicked it down the road into some 6 endless Congressional and Senate Hearings.

        They would have had a strong diplomatic and even military response to Putin.

        Putin, and the world are laughing at Obama again.

    • AlDavisJr

      So everything you don’t like to hear about is fake news, right? But no doubt you believe “pizzagate” was the truth?

      • Allen Lewis

        My point that you are ignoring is that Science articles are pushing the agenda of the progressives by pushing unrelated content into a story.

        • bombing8

          Acquiring knowledge is “progressive”. Try it and see if you awaken your brain and actually enjoy it.

          • MrNico

            No, those losers are actually repressive, trying to suppress anything that does not exactly fit their power-mad agendas. They should call themselves regressives, the way they continue to try and control minorities through dumbing down education and expanding welfare and other social programs.

          • enviroknight

            Science articles should be about “science” and leave unrelated snarky or political partisan rhetoric out…

  • MrNico

    Yeah, while the sociocrat losers here whine about alleged Russian aid to El Trump’s campaign, they blithely ignore the illegal campaign contributions and interference on behalf of the clinton scum. I guess to them, hacking isolated voting machines never connected to the internet is a reasonable occurrence…

    • Allen Lewis

      The Crux is not letting me answer with facts that put the Democrats Leftist agenda in an unfavorable light. So much for Freedom of Speech!

  • Samuel Clemens

    I do believe the Buran had jet engines…it could not have been a pure Shuttle ripoff.

    • CharlesHouston

      The Buran did NOT have jet engines.

  • robi sen

    No where near the first computer espionage

  • robi sen

    Also the article implies that the shuttle program was mothballed

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