How to steal the Space Shuttle

Jason Torchinsky of Jalopnik wrote a detailed scenario on how to steal the Space Shuttle in Los Angeles.

Yesterday morning I was at the California Science Center's press conference outlining their plan to drag a massive spaceship across Los Angeles. It was one of those times where logistics can make even the most outlandish plans seem boring, as they went over schedules and road closures and the like. While they were describing the locations where Endeavour would be stopped for viewing or technical reasons, I realized that this was the most exposed this priceless spaceship will ever be. Which, of course, got me thinking. Could someone steal the Space Shuttle?

The LAPD officers in charge of the security portion of the massive moving project were there, but it was pretty clear their responsibilities had to do with keeping people and the city safe, not protecting the Shuttle from theft. I asked both officers if they thought, given Bond supervillian-levels of resources, it would be possible for someone to steal the shuttle.

They made two mistakes in their answers. First mistake was that the first cop told me it was "impossible." The second mistake was that the other policeman told me "I won't say impossible." Now it sounds like a challenge.

How To Steal The Space Shuttle: A Step-By-Step Guide


  1. There’s probably not a lot of point stealing a Space Shuttle unless you steal the rest of the stack – the SRB’s and the external tank. The article doesn’t explain how to do that.

    In fact, I’m going to go a little further and say that there’s probably not a lot of point stealing a Space Shuttle, period. Unless you just want something to put on your resume.

    1. Or as a paid job for an insanely rich collector who already has a a set of SRBs and an external tank. 

    2.  But you would be the first billionaire on the block to own one! Your friends would be jealous! They would have to steal one.

      I’m also thinking, “What if we didn’t have to worry about getting it up in space? Say that there is a method to get it up there, You now have a vessel to hang around in space to pick up Col Jack O’Neill, or defend the planet from bad aliens.

      By the way, read the book Red Thunder that deals with old space shuttles and what to do if the issue of propulsion is taken out of the equation. It’s a fun book.

    3. That’s not an SRB. That’s a grain silo. Been there for…. weeks. Lots of weeks. Filled with… you know, silo things.

      What paper did you say you were from, again?

  2. “I have learned to use the word ‘impossible’ with the greatest caution,” -Wernher von Braun

    I wonder if a similar question prompted that response from von Braun?

  3. 99% of the fun of these is nitpicking. (Well, for me, anyway.) So I’ll start.

    Part of the plan involves shrink-wrapping the shuttle so that it’s at least semi-waterproof, then letting it sink into the cargo hold of the waiting submarine. (Some people are saying the orbiter is pretty watertight as it is, but never mind.) I have no idea how much internal volume the shuttle has, but are we absolutely sure it would sink if it didn’t take on water?

    On a related note, if it did sink, it probably wouldn’t do so in a nice, gentle, uncomplicated fashion. Those big old wings (now hydrofoils) would steer it somewhere, probably not in the angle or direction you wanted. And if the engines at the back are the heaviest part, as I suspect they are, it might well sink vertically. (And the stress of getting vertical might break the shuttle in half, as with many shipwrecks.)

    Please take this as constructive criticism. I am all for helping Switzerland steal a space shuttle.

    1. I doubt the cargo bay is “water tight”, and that probably comprises a large-ish internal area of the ship.  So I wouldn’t expect it to sink like a rock, but like a car, taking on water and going down slowly.

  4. I asked both officers if they thought, given Bond supervillian-levels of resources, it would be possible for someone to steal the shuttle.

    I believe that question was already answered in Moonraker. 

    1. Liberators.  They are liberating the shuttle. Or the USA from the chore of maintaining it, whichever.

  5. “the Swiss state-run airline, Swissair”

    Swissair is defunc since 2001… The current airline is called only Swiss, nowadays a subsidiary of Lufthansa.

    1. Also, the whole ‘fortress state’ isn’t really operational anymore, although that isn’t really key to the plan being discussed.

    1. The graphic at the head of this page reminded me of something. And then it hit me …

  6. Darnit! Now I’m wondering if the shuttles all have some kind of VIN codes behind the canopy. I mean, sure, the name of each shuttle is painted on the side. But that would be easy to fake. Where would an expert look, if they were trying to verify the authenticity of a particular shuttle?

    There’s a  hairbrained plot gathering steam, where someone from the NTSB finds Challenger or Enterprise pieces where the Columbia was supposed to have crashed….

  7. How would you coordinate twenty helicopters flying in close formation that are carrying two shuttles (well, a shuttle and a ‘shuttle’) through smoke that is dense enough for the TV cameras and coordinators not even to notice that there were two rigs? This is leaving out the actual NASA rescuers at the scene, unless they were in on it and the ones flying the helicopters carrying the Buran – in which case they would have everything to lose as it would be painfully obvious that they knew what they were doing, even if no one else did. There would already be air support during the transfer, so you would have to deal with that in your plan (are the air support crews also in on it?) At this point, the ten (loud and very visible) helicopters carrying the real space shuttle have to fly a few miles over the city out of the black smoke (that everyone is looking at by this point) and towards the ocean. There are media, NASA and private cameras pointing at the scene from every angle, who probably already noticed the ten helicopters carrying the Buran to the site before the plane crash happened.

    Or was the Buran assembled in a huge underground bunker (very) near to the staging point along with the helicopters? If so, just put the shuttle in the huge underground bunker where the Buran was, because your skills at hiding obvious things in plain sight are incredible. You can then take the wings off the shuttle and bring it back through the tunnel that you originally used to take the Buran from your hidden submarine base on the coast. It’s a shame this is happening now rather than in a few years time – I hear they’re thinking of extending the metro line to LAX through that area, in which case you might be able to borrow one of their tunneling machines when they’re done with it and save a bit of money and time (I hear they often just leave them in the tunnel rather than taking them out after the tunnel is finished). Still, you might be able to save on the cost of ten helicopters and their crews this way, as the Buran could be set up to be lifted relatively quickly while the helicopters are still in the air.

    N.B. This still seems like a highly implausible idea, it just seems like a fun game in the same genre as ‘assault on Disney World’s Cinderella Castle’.

    Edit: Damn, LA’s metro system is above-ground, isn’t it? That kind of screws with the whole tunnel idea… You’d probably need to bring in a large number of people with extensive experience in making secret tunnels and underground bases big enough to fit large aircraft. Hmm…

  8. I also noticed the flaw that the Buran could not easily be placed nearby without being seen approaching the smoke.

    But then I realized that scientists have already solved these problems, quite recently.

    Have the Buran on top of the Swissair jet! This will conceal its approach.

    When the jet is about to crash, we need Buran to be well above the plane. How can we do this? A skyhook, of course! The principle was proven on Mars fairly recently.

    Explosive bolts would separate Buran and jet, while at the same time removing the wings of the jet, and causing th body of the jet to begin emitting smoke.

    Buran would glide onwards, like a gracefully gliding cinderblock, while lowering the now-wingless body of the plane to a controlled crash.

    Buran would need to be caught from its glide in a net by the ten helicopters, but catching things in nets between radio controlled helicopters is now also a solved problem.

    This just leaves the problem mentioned above of getting the shuttle out of the smoke and to the oil tanker (as other commenters have pointed out, the shuttle’s too big for any sub). Helicopters clearly won’t work because they’ll *blow the smoke away*.

    But if it travels by land, you could have smoke things on the shuttle, too, to cover it from prying
    eyes. Nobody’ll notice part of the smoke cloud driving off, amid the

    Then I looked at the map and realised it was going to be parked only a couple hundred yards from the airport, and that the sea is right there at the end of the runway.

    So, yeah, probably easiest just to get behind the wheel (grab the keys from behind the sun visor) and drive it to the airport, and off the end of the runway.

    [Edit: NO! Have a SECOND swissair jet flying into LAX, carrying “the Buran”. Completely openly! Have it land at LAX.
    But… it is just carrying an *inflatable* Buran! Then, deflate that, drive the shuttle onto the runway, up a ramp, onto the back of your second plane, and *wrap it in the deflated inflatable Buran-skin*!]

  9. Right… I’m sure post-9/11 FAA wouldn’t notice  20 extra helicopter radar signatures. And even if they did, there’s no way they’d scramble dozens more fighters to assist whatever air support was already there. /end sarcasm. Not that I’m saying this is impossible, but it’s going to be a lot more expensive than you think.

  10. Dude, I was just at the Intrepid Air and Space museum in NYC and they have the Enterprise shuttle there that would be way easier to steal. It is sitting on the edge of a boat in the Hudson River. The only thing protecting it is a temporary blowup tent. Just float a big cargo ship up there in the middle of the night, use a sharp knife and voila…the shuttle is yours.

  11. Now, the next question is, given Bond-villain-level resources, what could you do to defend the shuttle?

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