Discover Magazine reminds us that the kind of military industrial espionage as depicted in the latest Star Wars movie “Rogue One” has real life counterparts. The Soviets, for example, conducted a massive operation to steal the plans for the space shuttle in the 1970s and 1980s. The operation was not quite as exciting as the one in the movie as it involved no gun battles with United States Marines nor, so far as can be determined, midnight meetings in parking lots with exchanges of files as depicted in spy fiction.

Most of the time, KGB agents bought up mountains of open source documents, mainly from the United States government. In the later years, the Soviets conducted the first known instance of cyber espionage to understand what made the shuttle flew.

Why would the Soviets want to have the Space shuttle plans? To be sure, the USSR had been stealing American technology since at least the Manhattan Project when they stole the secret to the atomic bomb. But the Russians became particularly impressed and more than a little scared of American technological acumen when NASA beat them in the race to the moon.

If the Americans could do that from a standing start, what else would they be capable of?

Ironically, the CIA discovered the operation and arranged for phony documents to fall into Soviet hands.

Some suspect that the Soviets thought the shuttle was a military weapon, perhaps used to deliver a nuclear warhead on targets on the Motherland. They knew, because President Jimmy Carter boasted about it, that the shuttle was used to deploy secret military satellites.

This capability became of some concern when President Ronald Reagan announced the SDI or “Star Wars” program designed to stop ICBM attacks with space based weapons.

As a result of the espionage program, the Soviets built their own version of the space shuttle, the Buran, which flew into space only once, in an uncrewed flight in 1988. The Buran program was cancelled when the Soviet Union collapsed, partly because of the massive spending the Soviets conducted trying to ascertain, counter, and mimic American military technology.

“Star Wars” may never have deployed a missile killing satellite but it helped to destroy the Evil Empire, as President Reagan called the Soviet Union, as thoroughly as the fiction heroes of “Rogue One” and the other Star Wars movie defeated the Galactic Empire.

The American space shuttle, while it did not achieve its goal of cheap access to space, had a long career of missions. Including the construction of the International Space Station in which, ironically, Russia is a partner.

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