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How the Soviet space shuttle fizzled

In the second half of a series on the Soviet space shuttle, NBC News' Robert Windrem retraces how the Reagan administration responded to the espionage case.

'Codename Farewell' takes shape
With the documents in hand, and Vetrov’s role still unknown to his bosses at KGB headquarters, the CIA devised a plan to take revenge. In partnership with the FBI, the United States would “make available” to Soviet collectors “modified” products.

Gus Weiss, a Reagan aide at the National Security Council, wrote about how the plan was conceived in the CIA’s “Studies in Intelligence”:

“I met with William Casey, Reagan’s Director of Central Intelligence, on a frosty afternoon in January 1982. ... I proposed using the Farewell material to feed or play back the products sought by [the Soviets], only these would come from our own sources and would have been ‘improved,’ that is designed so that on arrival in the Soviet Union they would appear genuine but would later fail. U.S. intelligence would match Soviet requirements supplied through Vetrov with our version of those items, ones that would not — to say the least — meet the expectations of that vast Soviet apparatus.”

Casey was enthusiastic, and critical materials were developed, including several shuttle-related materials based on rejected NASA designs. In response to an NBC News Freedom of Information Act request, NASA denied it had any documents related to any Soviet effort to steal the U.S. shuttle design, but buried in an August 1989 technical analysis of the similarities between the two shuttles were hints of the program’s success, particularly in the development of heat-resistant tiles that protected the shuttle as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. With regard to the use of ablative (or adhesive) material in gaps between tiles on some surfaces, a Johnson Spaceflight Center engineer noted, “Soviets have ablative material in their elevon gaps, just like we did. We fooled them and now use tiles in the gaps.” On another page of the analysis, the anonymous engineer noted another disparity was “probably due to their stolen technology freeze in the early ’80s.”

A NASA source says in fact the tiles were a big problem when the Soviets launched and returned the Buran in November, agreeing they were “cooked.” Is there firm public evidence the Soviets obtained defective tiles? No, but as two officials told NBC News, the United States was handing out early versions of the tiles in the late ‘70s like they were candy.

Some time in the winter of 1983, Vetrov’s espionage was uncovered. He had bragged in a letter to his family that he had been part of something big. The KGB brought him back to Moscow, interrogated him, got him to confess, and then executed him, apparently by firing squad.

His legacy was a rich one, however. By exposing the Soviet operation, he increased the awareness of technology transfer. Once the French learned of his death, hundreds of Soviet spies serving as diplomats were sent packing, and the “stolen technology freeze” the shuttle engineer wrote about was on.

As the Defense Intelligence Agency later concluded in a then-classified report that drew on Vetrov’s spying, “By using U.S. propulsion, computer, materials, and airframe technology and designs, the Soviets were able to produce an orbiter years earlier, and at far less cost, than if they had depended solely on their own technology and engineering. Resources including money and scientific expertise could thus be diverted to other areas.”

Other spies, other guises
When Columbia was launched in April 1981, the United States was well aware of the Soviet effort to copy it, but not that the Soviets had begun building the first of its orbiters — called “Buran”, Russian for “Snowstorm” — the year before. It would be five years before the United States got a good look at the similarities and another seven before the rest of the world would see it. But the United States knew the Soviets were still gathering data, as evidenced by the level of interest on the part of Soviet spy ships and aircraft.

One big fear: What was NASA’s legal position should a Soviet ship try to tow away the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters after they were jettisoned during launch. Even a cursory look, the United States knew, would be a big help.

The Soviets had nosed around the first launches, following the recovery vessels as they towed the SRB’s back to Cape Canaveral. Finally, in September 1981, the Kennedy Space Center’s safety director asked the space agency’s general counsel how far the United States could go under international law to protect the solid rocket boosters from seizure.

The bottom line was shocking. The chief counsel said that if the recovery ships or the Coast Guard ships that accompanied them were not near the solid rocket booster and a “foreign vessel” attempted to grab the rocket, “such action would be lawful and its return would need to be sought through diplomatic channels.” If the U.S. ships were on hand and the Soviets attached a line to the solid rocket booster for retrieval, the U.S. option would have to be limited to “peaceful removal of the attachment.” Only if the foreign ship forcibly attempted to seize the rockets could the operation be “lawfully resisted by all necessary and appropriate force.”

The main reason the Soviet ships were on hand — Soviet Bear spy planes were loitering off the coast and Soviet satellite dishes at Lourdes, Cuba, were pointing skyward — was to get as much telemetry data about the shuttle recorded and sent back to Moscow. One reason was to get a good read on the shuttle design, but the Soviets truly feared the military implications of what they had labeled a “space bomber” five years earlier.

And the espionage wasn’t limited to the Cape. The Soviets also showed interest in the Mojave Desert, where the first shuttle missions landed. Fourteen hours after the launch of Columbia, Kosmos 1262, then in space only a week, was maneuvered into a new orbit that brought it closer to the Earth. What military analysts like Nick Johnson of Teledyne Brown Engineering quickly realized was that Kosmos 1262 flew directly over the shuttle’s Edwards AFB landing site about 10 minutes before Columbia touched down, showing a keen interest in the landing characteristics of the shuttle. Two flights later, another Soviet spy satellite, Kosmos 1343, passed directly over the White Sands landing strip 15 minutes before the shuttle landed, giving it a good view of landing preparations.

“One possible explanation,” wrote Johnson at the time, “was the desire to get a satellite’s view of the site for reference in assessing potential future landing fields and the deployment of ground support equipment.”

In fact, shuttle astronauts were amazed years later when they saw the first U.S. spy satellite photos of the Soviet shuttle landing strip at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The strips were in many ways identical down to the markings shuttle pilots used to trigger certain landing operations.

At the same time, the United States stepped up its own intelligence gathering on the possible military uses of a Soviet space shuttle — mirror-imaging at its best. The most bizarre misread may have been the DIA’s faulty analysis of four Soviet launches of sub-scale “lifting bodies” designed to test the shuttle’s aerodynamic qualities. Between 1982 and 1984, the Soviets sent what it called BOR-4 lifting bodies into space. The first two, Kosmos 1374 and Kosmos 1445, remained in space for a few orbits and then were recovered in the Indian Ocean. On one recovery, the Australian Air Force was able to get photographs of the vehicle being dragged on board the Soviet trawler that tracked its descent. It looked like a small space plane and unlike the space shuttle.

The real reason behind the flight was to test heat-resistant re-entry materials and to gather aerodynamic data for the Soviet space shuttle. At only 4,000 pounds and 12 feet long, it was hardly the harbinger of a new space fighter, but that is exactly what the DIA reported it to be. The defense agency buttressed its analysis by quoting from Soviet documents on the military uses of space, which in turn had been written in response to fears about the military uses of the U.S. shuttle.

The DIA noted the Soviet Military Encyclopedia had described various uses and stated, “While such a spacecraft, as noted in the encyclopedia entry of Aerospace Vehicles, would apparently be used to supply orbiting space stations, it would also have a broad range of possible military functions.” The DIA report then quoted the encyclopedia, “A special feature of its flight is its ability to enter and achieve near earth orbit, descend from orbit for maneuvers in the dense layers of the atmosphere (using aerodynamic forces), and return to a new orbit in outer space.”

U.S. spy satellites spot test shuttle
Spy satellites were enlisted to track the development of both the “space fighter” as well as the space shuttle, and in 1985, the United States got lucky. The first of a series of full-scale “aero-Burans” had begun flying that November from the Ramenskoye test range near Moscow, a high-value intelligence target for U.S. spy satellites. With four jet engines, the aero-Buran could conduct a complete series of tests in the atmosphere. Twenty-four test flights would be flown with the shuttle being dropped from a converted Bison bomber, when U.S. satellites were out of sight. One night, however, the bomber, with the shuttle affixed to its back, ran off the runway and got stuck in the mud. Before it could be moved, a spy satellite flying overhead snapped its picture and not long afterwards, an artist’s rendering was first leaked and then released by the Pentagon.

At that time, the United States knew there would be some differences between the two programs. Unlike the U.S. shuttle, which uses main engines on the back of the orbiter to launch the shuttle, the Soviet version would be launched on the back of the giant Energia booster rocket, capable of putting 100 tons into orbit.

“They used the main engine on the base of the Energia,” said Joseph Loftus, NASA’s assistant director who has long followed the Soviet space program. “They have a long standing preference for one large piece of turbo machinery driving several combustion chambers.”

Still, there were even similarities between the main engines at the base of the U.S. shuttle orbiter and at the base of the Energia rocket that launched the Russian shuttle orbiter. To some, the adaptations the Soviets had made gave them advantages.

But the Soviets were in a race with bankruptcy. They were not only building five shuttles simultaneously, but upgrading their launch and test facilities for the shuttle. At Star City, outside Moscow, construction began on a training facility for cosmonauts near the one used for Mir.

At Baikonur, an ironic twist was taking place. Soviet officials had decided to put the Buran and Energia facilities on the old N-1 site of the failed moon program. Two vehicle assembly buildings were built, one for the Buran orbiter and the other for the Energia rocket, both linked by raillines to the launchpads where the ill-fated attempt at launching a moon rocket had taken place. Already 10 billion rubles (then equal to $4 billion) had been spent and the Soviet economy was faltering. Pressure built.

The unveiling
In March 1988, with Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika in bloom, the Soviets were still trying to keep the program a secret. Conflicting reports were being circulated and there had been no official word on the aero-Buran tests. That month, spy satellites caught their first vision of the completed project. Early that month, the Buran orbiter was mated with the Energyia for the first time on a Baikonur launchpad. The United States suspected a launch was near, but it was only a mating test and the Buran quickly headed back into the assembly building.

In the United States, there were new reports and angry denials that NASA had let the Soviets steal the shuttle design. A syndicated column that charged the Soviets “went off with U.S. shuttle plans intact” led to an internal memo marked “secret” in which the agency’s Director of International Affairs defended his cooperation with the Soviets.

Richard Barnes wrote the NASA administrator that there had been a 1977 meeting to discuss a link-up between the Soviets Salyut space station and the U.S. shuttle then under development. Barnes did not know, of course, that the Soviet decision to copy the U.S. shuttle had been taken the year before. He contended “the only information on the space shuttle which was provided to the Soviets in this context was generic, largely public information pertinent to scientific customer requirements. More broadly, although the Soviets have shown considerable interest in the space shuttle program and undoubtedly have targeted it for intelligence purposes, there is no evidence that NASA data was provided as a consequence of any cooperative space activity.”

Barnes’ International Affairs office had reason to be sensitive. During the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz project, U.S. intelligence officers had learned a few weeks before the docking that one of the cosmonauts involved was a KGB officer suspected of collecting technology over the course of the project.

Still, the biggest explosion of criticism came at a very impropitious moment. Only hours before the Discovery flew into space in September 1988 — the first launch since the Challenger disaster more than two years earlier — the Soviets unveiled the Buran with the Tass photo release showing the mated project on the pad.

The similarity was striking, even stunning, in spite of years of leaks, news reports and scare-mongering. John Peller, then chief engineer for Rockwell International, said that when NASA realized that the Soviets were developing a carbon copy of the orbiter, they had “gone crazy” trying to figure out how it happened. Peller said NASA had called him to ask if he given shuttle documents to the Soviets. “I told them I’d know if 30,000 drawings were missing.”

A few weeks later, the Buran was launched, unmanned, because life support equipment wasn’t completely installed and the CRT’s shuttle cosmonauts would use to monitor the Buran’s operations weren’t ready. Still, it was a remarkable achievement, and it engendered two NASA studies.

Sizing up the Soviet shuttle
The highly technical analysis, begun almost immediately after the Buran landed, was hamstrung by the Soviets’ refusal to provide the same level of information on its shuttle that the United States had provided years before. To determine simple measurements, U.S. analysts had to calibrate its work by finding one commonality and working backwards. The common element: hand-rail height. Then, the engineers used Soviet news agency stills and television video of the launch and landing to create three-dimensional views of the Buran.

By overlaying that over similar views of the U.S. shuttle, they came up with a list of “Major Differences.” It could as easily have been labeled “Major Similarities”:

The Soviet shuttle was only three feet longer; its payload bay was only 15 inches longer. The forward payload door was eight inches bigger; the height of the vertical stabilizer merely one inch taller.

The truly major differences were related to how the two orbiters were powered. Because the U.S. shuttle was powered by its own engines, its center of gravity was considerably to the aft of the middle of the orbiter. Not so the Buran. The NASA analysis was frank: “Because the U.S. and Soviet orbiters are so alike, the lack of engines on Buran must move the center of gravity forward.”

With regard to the motors used to change orbits, the analysis hinted at an even greater similarity: “exit areas appear to be the same size which may imply same motor.” There were some interesting adaptations. Externally, the thrusters it added, “are identical in number and location,” but internally, “the Soviet system is very different from ours.”

And while the Buran was judged capable, the NASA analysis noted some problems: The Soviets required 15,000 more tiles — that were less capable — than the U.S. shuttle, and while certain elements were safe for a two-orbit mission, they might not be for an extended duration mission.

Further information became available in June of 1989 when NASA dispatched a team of photographers to the Paris Air Show, where Gorbachev had sent the Buran. The photographs provided even more detail on the similarities, in particular of the tiles.

But soon, all the intelligence effort, all the massive construction, all the preparation at Baikonur, was wasted. First, a second Buran flight was cancelled, then construction of the subsequent shuttles was halted, and finally in 1993 after starts and stops and after 20 billion rubles had been spent, the entire program was ended.

The Buran remained at Baikonur, while one of the aero-Burans sat in Gorky Park, Moscow, where it served as a restaurant. A second was rolled out for occasional airshows, an aging diva of the space race.

The main reason for the final rites was that the ministry of defense could no longer afford such an expense at a time of budget restrictions and cutbacks. The need for a space bomber was over. For many who worked on it, the end was bitter.

“We made a better one than the Americans did,” said Yuri Semenov, the Energyia designer at the time. “But the former customers are abandoning it, outlays for defense are being curtailed.”

Gherman Titov, the second man in space after Yuri Gagarin and never a supporter of such a huge, duplicative project, was more direct.

“It would be better if we just cut it up for scrap ... for that is all that it is worth.”