IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

How the Soviets stole a space shuttle

In what may have been the first instance of online espionage, the Soviets built their own space shuttle based on thousands of documents acquired from U.S. sources. First of two parts, by NBC News' Robert Windrem.
The Russian space shuttle Buran - which looked similar to the U.S. space shuttle - is perched on an Energia rocket in 1988.
The Russian space shuttle Buran - which looked similar to the U.S. space shuttle - is perched on an Energia rocket in 1988.Rsa Via Nasa

When U.S. space shuttles started linking up with Russia's Mir space station in 1995, both sides owed a small debt to the old Soviet secret police, the KGB. According to documents obtained by NBC News, it was the KGB that successfully stole the U.S. shuttle design in the '70s and '80s.

That theft permitted the Soviet Union to build its own carbon copy of the U.S. system, called the Buran, thus unintentionally laying the groundwork for the compatibility between the U.S. and Russian systems.

Although the Soviet shuttle flew only once in 1990, it was planned in part as a space ferry to link up with Mir. That all-Soviet linkup never took place, and the Soviet shuttle was finally abandoned in 1994. But because the Soviet craft was so similar to the U.S. version, designing a Mir linkup for Atlantis and other U.S. shuttles proved simple and efficient. In fact, the first linkup between the Mir and the shuttle Atlantis in 1995 used the very system the Russians designed for their own shuttle.

The story of the Soviet shuttle is really the story of the competition between the two great space powers in microcosm, complete with Cold War intrigue and paranoia, mirror-image competition and all manner of spies, both human and electronic. It may also be the first recorded example of spying online.

Brezhnev's paranoia
The story begins in 1974 with a secret meeting at the Kremlin. Vladimir Smirnov, head of the Soviet Union’s powerful Military-Industrial Commission, or VPK, was laying out priorities for the next year to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The VPK was the body that directed not only the military projects but also laid out strategies for obtaining the technologies.

It was to the great benefit of the VPK — like its private U.S. counterparts —to exaggerate any U.S. threat. And that, according to reports revealed years later, is exactly what Smirnov did.

“Smirnov, from VPK, in his regular report to Brezhnev, mentioned at the end of his report: the Americans are intensively working on a winged space vehicle,” according to a 1991 history of the program printed in “Kuranty,” a Moscow magazine. “Such a vehicle is like an aircraft. It is capable, through a side maneuver, of changing its orbit in such a way that it would find itself at the right moment right over Moscow, possibly with dangerous cargo. The news disturbed Leonid Illyich [Brezhnev] very much. He contemplated it intensively and then said, ‘We are not country bumpkins here. Let us make an effort and find the money.’”

Also backing the plan was the man at the heart of the Soviet military, Marshal Dmitri Ustinov, a Cold Warrior without parallel in the old Soviet Union. The man who ran the Soviet munitions industry during World War II, he was now the Presidium member in charge of the nation’s defense and someone who could easily see the value of a “space bomber” — in spite of the fact that the Soviet Union and the United States were about to sign a treaty banning nuclear weapons in outer space.

According to some accounts, there was no unanimity among the Soviet leaders. Marshal Georgi Grechko, the minister of defense, was one who was opposed to the monstrous outlay of money required, but the VPK and other military leaders had frightened Brezhnev, then in his late 70s.

“They began to use the shuttle to frighten Leonid Illyich Brezhnev and they explained to him that damned shuttle could zoom down on Moscow at any minute, bomb it to smithereens and fly away,” one Russian journalist wrote in the winter of 1991, just before the Soviet Union went out of existence. “Brezhnev understood, yes, of course, an alternative weapon is necessary.”

Project authorized in secret
In February 1976, a decree authorizing the project was finally signed, in secret, in the Communist Party’s Central Committee and the Soviet Council of Ministers. Two other decrees laying out the military uses of a shuttle were signed later, in May 1977 and December 1981. Although the Soviets initially installed V. P. Glushko and Gleb Lozino-Lozinskiy, two of its top space scientists, at the head of the program, Col. General Alexander Maksimov, a high-ranking Defense Ministry official who ran military space and missile programs, was ultimately given command of the shuttle’s development.

With the need established and the sponsorship firmly in place, word went forth to the design bureaus of the massive Soviet space program. No one in those offices had any doubt about who was in charge.

“It is no secret to anyone in our sector ... that the Energia-Buran system was ordered from us by the military,” said Yuri Semenov, developer of the Energia booster program. “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.”

Choosing a design
At that point, though, a design had not been settled on. The Soviets had developed, like the United States, a pilot program in the 1960s aimed at building a reusable space plane. Called the “Spiral,” it was much like the U.S. “Dyna-Soar,” a small but efficient design that could, its designers hoped, fly off into space and return to the ground. Many in the Soviet space program thought the “Spiral” could be resuscitated as the model on which “Buran” would be built ... but that was not to be.

“When the decision on the development of the Soviet aerospace system was made, the Molniya Scientific Production Association, which Lozino-Lozhinsky heads, and which had been assigned the project, proposed to use its ‘ancient’ (13 years had been lost) Spiral design,” wrote a Soviet military historian in “Red Star,” the nation’s leading military journal. “However, it was rejected with a quite strange explanation: ‘This is not at all what the Americans are doing.’”

Georgi Grechko, the Soviet cosmonaut, later told an American space historian that the decision both to kill “Spiral” and then decide to choose a U.S. design said a lot about the Soviet government.

“The Spiral was a very good project but it was another mistake for our government. They said Americans didn’t have a space shuttle [back then] and we shouldn’t either and it was destroyed. Then, after you made your space shuttle, immediately they demanded a space shuttle. ... It was very crazy of our government.”

And yet the Soviet space program in 1976 was definitely in need of some fresh challenges. That same year, the Soviets quietly ended their manned lunar landing program, and the Apollo-Soyuz link-up, having succeeded the year before, was completed as well. The huge facilities and launch pads built for the N-1 moon rockets stood abandoned at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Something was needed to stand in their place.

Getting the goods
And something else was needed as well — a shortcut to help the Soviets catch up with the United States. The contract for the first two American shuttles had been let four years earlier in 1972, and the Enterprise, a full-scale model which would test the shuttle’s mettle in atmospheric tests, was nearly complete. And so the VPK was put to work, this time, to gather the technologies and materials needed.

The Soviets had two great advantages: Their own space program was world class, with tens of thousands of top scientists and engineers who could be put to work on the program; and, to the Soviets’ great surprise, the United States decided not to classify its program. All the technology that would go into the shuttle would be unclassified — that is, open to the world. The only problem was a management challenge: the United States was turning out reams of material both in hard copy and in database form. The VPK was given the job of managing it.

The United States had long known that the VPK was in the technology transfer business. A classified analysis of Soviet Intelligence Services in 1974 warned of its use of KGB and GRU military intelligence agents to gather critical pieces of military and even commercial projects in the West. It had succeeded in the 1960s in gathering data critical to another failed aerospace project — the TU-144 supersonic transport, whose design had been helped by spying on the British-French Concorde and the Boeing 2707 SST as well.

But what the United States didn’t know at the time — and wouldn’t know until 1981— was the extent of the VPK’s operations and the huge amounts of money it was spending on espionage. A 1985 CIA report noted: “The VPK program ... involves espionage by hostile intelligence officers, overt collection, by East Bloc officials, acquisition by scientific exchange program participants and illegal trade-related activity.”

Online espionage
The key in terms of the shuttle program was “overt collection” and specifically the use of commercial databases. In effect, the massive effort directed at the U.S. space shuttle program was among the first cases of Internet espionage, if not the first case. With all the critical documents online, it was left to the VPK, under the auspices of the KGB, to gather it all up and then circulate it to those in the space program who needed it.

The 1985 CIA analysis on “Soviet Acquisition of Militarily Significant Western Technology” described the shuttle project as the best example of the KGB’s exploitation of U.S. government databases:

“From the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, NASA documents and NASA-funded contractor studies provided the Soviets with their most important source of unclassified material in the aerospace area. Soviet interests in NASA activities focused on virtually all aspects of the space shuttle. Documents acquired dealt with airframe designs (including the computer programs on design analysis), materials, flight computer systems, and propulsion systems. This information allowed Soviet military industries to save years of scientific research and testing time as well as millions of rubles as they developed their own very similar space shuttle vehicle.”

The CIA noted that “individual abstracts or references in government and commercial data bases are unclassified, but some of the information, taken in the aggregate, may reveal sensitive information.”

Moreover, said the CIA, the VPK had laid out “general guidance to collectors to acquire selected information on ... the U.S. space shuttle.” In terms of priority, in fact, the report noted that “documents on systems and heat shielding of the U.S. space shuttle” was the VPK’s top need in the “Space and Anti-satellite Weapons” arena. The CIA also detailed how much the KGB had budgeted for several of the shuttle-related projects and what academic institutions were targeted by the Soviets’ shuttle effort.

A half-million rubles — then worth roughly $140,000 — had been budgeted for “documents on the U.S. shuttle orbiter control system,” the CIA noted. And shuttle-related research projects at Caltech, MIT, Brooklyn Poly, Princeton, Stanford, Kansas, Penn State and Ohio State were also listed as targets of the KGB.

So thorough was the online acquisition, the National Security Agency learned, that the Soviets were using two East-West research centers in Vienna and Helsinki as covers to funnel the information to Moscow, where it kept printers going “almost constantly.” The Reagan administration had cut the Soviets off from making direct purchases of reports through the Department of Commerce’s National Technical Information Service and the Pentagon’s Defense Technical Information Service.

“Prior to that, they simply went from the Soviet embassy on 16th Street to the Government Printing Office on North Capitol and H Streets, provided the GPO with the name and number of the document they had gotten off the database, paid their money and took the documents back to the embassy,” said one intelligence official.

The computer center through which much of the intelligence then flowed, according to another CIA report, was located at the Soviet Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Moscow, which it identified as having strong “links” to the KGB. The report noted it was “reasonable to assume” that the chamber’s computer center tapped into western online information services.

Information bonanza
The shuttle program provided an online bonanza for the KGB. By the time of the launch of Columbia in 1981, there were 3,473 documents online related to the shuttle in general, 364 on shuttle wind-tunnel tests, 103 on the shuttle’s booster rockets, 124 on heat-resistant tiles, 605 on the shuttle’s computers and even 10 on its military applications.

Intelligence officials told NBC News that the Soviets had saved “billions” on their shuttle program by using online spying. “They didn’t have to put their orbiter through all the wind tunnel tests and computer simulations we did because our test data was available to them,” said Edward Aldridge, secretary of the Air Force during the Reagan administration.

Walter Deeley, who ran the NSA’s counter-intelligence operations, described the Soviet acquisition of documents via commercial databases as “shift work,” meaning it required round-the-clock monitoring.

How did the United States learn all about this effort — the targeting, the budgeting, the exploitation of databases? From a spy who has gone down as one of the most important in the history of espionage, and one who spurred one of the most ruthless counter-intelligence operations in U.S. history.