How the Soviets stole a Space Shuttle
Senior Reserach Fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security,
NBC News investigative producer
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.
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... something else was needed as well – a shortcut to help the Soviets catch up with the United States.
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.”
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.
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.
Continue to Part 2: 'Codename: Farewell'
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.”