The US Space Shuttle program is dead and buried. The orbiters can now be found in their permanent homes in the Air and Space Museum, Kennedy Space Center, and the California Science Center. The launch pads used by the shuttles over a career of 135 launches are being repurposed for vehicles from SpaceX and the Space Launch System. Yes, some of the hardware and technology will be reused for NASA’s next generation of heavy launch vehicles, but the orbiter – a beautiful brick of a space plane – is forever grounded.
The Space Shuttle was a product of the cold war, and although the orbiters themselves were never purely military craft, the choices made during the design of the Space Shuttle were heavily influenced by the US Air Force. The Soviet Union was keenly aware the United States was building a ‘space bomber’ and quickly began development of their own manned spaceplane.
While this Soviet Shuttle would not be as successful as its American counterpart — the single completed craft would only fly once, unmanned — the story of this spaceplane is one of the greatest tales of espionage ever told. And it ends with a spaceship that was arguably even more capable than its American twin.
The idea of a spaceplane that can land at runways around the world has been a part of the American space program since the very beginning. In 1957, the US Air Force started the X-20 Dyna-Soar project to develop a manned space plane for orbital reconnaissance, bombing, and intercepting, repairing, or sabotaging satellites in orbit.
The Dyna-Soar project would end before a vehicle was built, but the idea of a reusable spaceplane was there. It may not have not been a good idea: the Dyna-Soar, Blue Gemini, and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory were all projects abandoned by the US Air Force for lack of a clear goal.
The Soviet Union, however, always believed a military installation in space would have a purpose. Several military soviet space stations were flown under in the early to mid 1970s, with one firing a 23mm or 30mm cannon as a test for the self-defense capabilities of the station.
In 1974, Vladimir Smirnov, head of the Soviet Military-Industrial Commission, was organizing the priorities for the next few years in a meeting with Leonid Brezhnev. It was always in Smirnov’s best interests to overstate the capabilities of the United States; fear means funding, and whether that fear is directed toward congress or the head of the party is inconsequential. In his report Smirnov told Brezhnev the ‘Americans were working on a winged space vehicle… capable 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 Military Applications of a Space Shuttle
The design of NASA’s space shuttle, given what we know about the 133 successful missions, was very odd. The control surfaces of the Space Shuttle orbiters were larger than they needed to be, especially considering that every pound of spacecraft means one less pound of payload. The reason for these gigantic control surfaces is the US Air Force’s involvement with the design of the shuttle. The Air Force wanted a vehicle that would launch north from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast, do something over Soviet territory, fly over the south pole, and land back in California after one orbit.
This mission – which was never carried out – would influence the design of the Space Shuttle orbiter more than any other mission. During this 90-minute mission, the Earth would rotate under the shuttle. Launching and landing in California would require a cross-range capability of about 1,500 miles for a glider with aerodynamic properties similar to a brick.
The vertical stabilizer of the Space Shuttle orbiter was bigger than it needed to be, the wings were larger than any mission would require. It could be said that the military requirements of the Space Shuttle orbiter is what would make it hilariously expensive and inherently unsafe for manned space flight. Still, in 1974 the Americans were working on a space plane with military applications that could fly over Moscow, drop a bomb, and fly away to safety.
In retrospect, the idea of a space bomber seems ludicrous. In 1974, both the US and the Soviet Union had a vast array of intercontinental ballistic missiles at their disposal that could launch in minutes and deliver dozens of warheads to targets on the other side of the world.
The Origins of the Soviet Shuttle
The cold war was a tit-for-tat exercise for the US and Soviet Union. When the Soviets funded the Viet Kong, dragging the US into a decade long war in south east asia, the United States would fund the Mujahideen, forcing the Soviets to wage a pointless war in Afghanistan. When the US Air Force began developing a small, spaceplane with the Dyna-Soar project, the Soviets would develop the Spiral, a small spacecraft that would launch vertically and land on nearly any runway in the world.
Spiral was built in response to the American Dyna-Soar project, and as such looks very similar to its unflown, untested American counterpart. The Spiral vehicle would launch one or two cosmonauts vertically on a large booster, orbit the Earth, and return to any point on the globe after several orbits. Spiral, or at least the space plane test articles, was flown for flight tests. The project did not last, as once the American Dyna-Soar project ended, there was no need for the Soviets to continue.
With the development of the American Space Shuttle, the Soviets again began to look at space planes. The designs for the old Spiral could have been resurrected. This was not to be. The American Space Shuttle, and Dyna-Soar were completely different vehicles, with different mission. The US Air Force had thrown out Dyna-Soar and replaced it with the Space Shuttle; the Soviets would do the same. The Soviets would copy the American Space Shuttle.
The first two American shuttles were authorized in 1972, and the first prototype, Enterprise, would fly atmospheric tests in 1976. Although the American Space Shuttle would have unofficial military applications, NASA decided to keep all the development of the Space Shuttle unclassified. In the late 1970s, anyone could visit the Government Printing Office in Washington, DC with the name and number of a document related to the Space Shuttle program and get a copy. By the time of the first launch of Columbia in 1981, thousands of documents related to the development of the shuttle made the 1.5 mile trip from the Government Printing Office to the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC.
Stealing the American Space Shuttle was not just a case of going down to the Government Printing Office to get a few documents. It was one of the first, if not the first cases of Internet espionage.
The American Shuttle Program was an effort spread over dozens of research institutions including MIT, Caltech, Stanford, and Penn State. The results of this research were collected into commercial databases. With thousands of documents online, the KGB recovered more than three thousand documents relating to the shuttle, with 300 related to wind tunnel tests, 100 on the solid rocket boosters, and a handful on the military applications of the Space Shuttle. This saved the Soviets billions – wind tunnel tests were not needed, computer simulations already existed, and test data was available.
The Space Shuttle Enterprise would have its first free atmospheric flight in 1977, and Columbia would make its first spaceflight in 1981. By this time the design and construction of the Soviet version – named Buran – was well on its way. For the first launches of Columbia, Soviet satellite dishes in Cuba downloaded telemetry from the shuttle’s ascent while long range Bear bombers orbited the Atlantic off the coast of Florida. A mere ten minutes after STS-1 landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California, a Soviet spy satellite flew overhead, taking pictures of the approach, landing, and ground equipment. Two launches later, fifteen minutes before the landing of STS-3 at White Sands, New Mexico, another Soviet spy satellite gathered intel on landing preparations.
The American and Soviet Shuttles
The Space Shuttle Enterprise would have its first free atmospheric flight in 1977, and Columbia would make its first spaceflight in 1981. By this time, construction of the Soviet Buran shuttle was well on its way.
Given the incredible amount of data on the American shuttle orbiter, it should come as no surprise the Buran system would be so similar. The US shuttle had an 80° wing glove sweep, and a 45° degree sweep of the main wing. Buran had the same 45° sweep of the main wing and a 78° sweep for the wing glove. The American shuttle had a wingspan of 23.79 m and a total length of 37.24 m. Buran‘s wingspan was 23.92 m and was 36.37 m long. The height difference of the vertical stabilizer between the two orbiters was mere inches.
While the orbiters were remarkably similar, the launch systems were not. The American Space Shuttle used three main engines mounted to the orbiter itself, a large external tank, and two solid rocket motors mounted to the side of the external tank. The Soviet shuttle’s launch system – ‘Energia’ – looked similar, but could not have been more different. Instead of two strap-on solid fuel boosters, this system used four boosters, fueled by kerosene and liquid oxygen. Where the American system placed the main engines on the shuttle itself, the Soviet system placed the main engines on the large center stack, to be thrown away after every launch.
NASA’s space shuttle would go on to make 133 successful flight over thirty years. The Soviet shuttle Buran would make only one unmanned flight in 1988, although it did demonstrate automated landing capability no American shuttle ever had. Two sister ships of Buran were constructed, Ptichka and Baikal, with the first manned flight of the Soviet shuttle occurring sometime in 1994. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 put those plans on hold, and in 1993, the entire program was officially cancelled.
Although Buran would be destroyed in a hangar roof collapse in 2002, various boilerplates and uncompleted shuttles would become museum displays, and in one case a restaurant, the technology stolen to create these shuttles would live on. When the Space Shuttle Atlantis first docked to the Russian space station Mir in 1995, it carried with it a docking module originally built for a Soviet shuttle.
Now, with both shuttle fleets grounded and tucked away in museums, a look back on the development of both systems shows how much was the same – the spacecraft themselves – and how much was different. The Soviet shuttle was developed a little bit later than the American version, and as such had capabilities NASA’s fleet would never have. Buran completed an autonomous landing, with a go-around due to crosswinds. Neither could ever be done in an American shuttle. Challenger and Columbia would be lost due to solid rocket boosters and foam strikes on ascent. Neither would have happened with the Energia launch system.
While the design of the Soviet shuttle was taken directly from documents produced in the mid 1970s, it’s not quite right to say the Soviet version was stolen. Buran, and her incomplete sister ships were iterations on a design, arguably more capable, but mired in a political and economic reality of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s.