Space Espionage: The Secret Agent’s Guide to the Space Shuttle

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The Space Shuttle program via

Since Sputnik in 1957, space has been a key domain of international espionage and geopolitical intrigue. Some of humankind’s best engineers, schemers, and scientists have invested time working out how to weaponize the cosmos, and how to use the expanse of the universe to better control our tiny world. It’s a bit of a cliché to point to photographs of the Earth from space and note the lack of borders, but that cliché hasn’t stopped spymasters and war planners from rubbing their hands together at the prospect of an infinite battlefield and the opportunities it presents.


Consider the space shuttle, which was a working vessel of international cooperation, and in the eyes of many, a symbol of peace. On first glace it’s a thing of beauty, but look too closely and it’s hard to shake the realization that it really is an odd spacecraft. Its payload bay is weirdly sized, and for all its bulk and over-engineering, the shuttle has poor heat protection and no escape hatch for astronauts within. The latter fact is especially odd for a vehicle specifically designed to send human beings in to space on a regular basis with little break in between. The absence of an escape system means an expectation of 100% reliability—something no engineer in his or her right mind would ever promise or expect.

Which means there were compromises in the design. Indeed, compromises at fundamental odds with the entire purpose of the vessel to begin with. But why? Cost was indeed a factor, but only to the extent that NASA needed a sponsor to validate the existence of the shuttle. (The betterment of humanity wasn’t enough.) The Air Force proved to be the benefactor needed by NASA. But you can’t ask a branch of the military to commit to something without making a few concessions yourself. The Air Force wanted to put satellites in orbit, and more interestingly, wanted to steal satellites that were already up there.


For a very long time, it was said officially that the Hubble Space Telescope mandated the design of the space shuttle (technically the space shuttle “orbiter”—the black-and-white brick with wings). But it was revealed only recently that Hubble was of secondary concern. The shuttle payload bay was designed to accommodate the KH-9 Hexagon spy satellite. “Big Bird,” as the satellite was also known, was the National Reconnaissance Office’s successor program to the Corona spy satellites. Hexagon would go into space with 60-miles of high-resolution film and photograph the Earth with twin “optical bar” cameras. Spymasters called this “mowing the lawn.” Hexagon missions lasted four months on each run, and would eject film canisters that Air Force aircraft would snatch midair. (This incredible bit of flying and retrieval was the same process developed for, and used during, the Corona missions.) In once instance, the Air Force missed, and a Navy submarine managed to retrieve the film three miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean.

Imagery intelligence explains another strange aspect of the space shuttle—its weight and the size of its launch rocket. When it was still on the drawing board (or rather, the re-drawing board), the Air Force mandated that the shuttle be capable of launching into an orbit over the North Pole. Why? To get better pictures of the Soviet Union.

This more than alarmed the Soviets, who projected that such a craft, however marketed, peaceful or not, had a nuclear first-strike capability. According to Alexander Bashilov, a Russian aerospace engineer, “In the early ’70s, when the U.S. began developing the space shuttle, naturally we assumed it would be used to deliver nuclear weapons, or as a sort of space pirate ship for shooting or stealing Soviet satellites. We had no choice but to respond.”


The response came in many forms. The Salyut-3 space station was reportedly armed with a 23mm cannon to blow the American pirates out of sky. And as described previously on Clearance Jobs, in what is possibly the first recorded case of cyber-espionage, the Soviet Union began mining American computer networks on a massive scale for everything they could find on the space shuttle’s design. Because the shuttle was unclassified, whenever the Soviets ran into a document that existed only in hard copy, they would send runners from the Soviet embassy in Washington to the U.S. Government Printing Office a few miles away. They would simply provide the name and filing number of the document they’d mined from American networks, pay a few dollars for printing fees, and carry the documents back to the Soviet embassy.

The result was a massively expensive Soviet shuttle program, and the remarkable Buran space shuttle. Internally, the vessels were quite different. The Soviets were masters of spaceflight, after all; the Buran featured everything from a wildly sophisticated autopilot to emergency orbiter separation in the event of disaster. However, the outsides of the two shuttles, American and Soviet, were nearly identical. The reason isn’t because of the space shuttle’s elegant design. Rather, to save a fortune on testing and engineering, the Soviets needed to copy the American space shuttle’s thermal protection designs.

In the end, of course, the Soviets never fired cannons at American spacecraft, and the American shuttle never stole a satellite and didn’t drop an atomic bomb over Moscow. But even after the Cold War, plans for the militarization of space remained in motion. Months before 9/11, one of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s major initiatives involved reorganizing military space operations so as to develop new defensive and offensive space initiatives. The reason: to prevent a “space Pearl Harbor.”

Over a century has elapsed since Whitman wrote, “I wander’d off by myself, / In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, / Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.” Whatever steps follow in space exploration, the question of whether humanity’s purposes are peaceful and above board has long been answered. The “perfect silence” has long been at odds with the noisy ground below.

David Brown is a regular contributor to Clearance Jobs. He is currently at work on his next book, One Inch From Earth, which tells the story of scientists who study the outer planets of the solar system. He can be found online at

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