During the space race (let's say 1956 to 1969, US and USSR), were there any advances in space exploration technology that were stolen by the other side?

I've read a lot about espionage in military and diplomatic areas, but I've never found anything about non-military space-related espionage. It seems that, in such a prestige-awarding contest, both countries would be eager to spy on what the other was doing.

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    $\begingroup$ Wernher von Braun wasn't even aware of the name of his Soviet counterpart chief designer's name until Sergei Korolev died and was buried with full honors and a plaque and his ashes interred into the Kremlin wall. After his first major success with the R-7 rocket KGB was afraid that Americans might try to assassinate him so they decided to keep his name secret even in homeland. He was simply known as "comrade chief designer". Soviets didn't have such problems tho, all they had to do is turn on the TV, Americans were broadcasting live nearly everything to the public anyway, including failures. $\endgroup$
    – TildalWave
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 22:53
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    $\begingroup$ In addition to TidalWave's excellent comment, I'd add that both the Americans and Germans were initially using designs based on the same progenitor (the German V2 rocket), with both the US and USSR using German rocket scientists, at least initially. The USSR deported many of the German rocket scientists and engineers a few years after the war, while Wernher Von Bruan and some other Germans ended up helping America design and build rockets (including the Saturn V) and other hardware. So there was a common legacy... $\endgroup$
    – Kirkaiya
    Commented Oct 23, 2014 at 0:04
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    $\begingroup$ who said the space race was for non-military purposes? $\endgroup$
    – Octopus
    Commented Oct 23, 2014 at 3:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Rikki-Tikki-Tavi Not Saturn V but its Soviet equivalent (N1). Basically the race for heavy lift rockets started because the Soviets didn't have as compact nukes as Americans did. US didn't even require anything larger than Minuteman / Trident on top of strategic bombers as their so-called "nuclear triad". Soviets needed the R-7 equivalent (in those days) to even contemplate ICBMs. Then the race to manage space started, Soviets were way ahead in those terms and the JFK's response with the race to the Moon was a direct consequence of public's lack of confidence in U.S. strategic prowess. $\endgroup$
    – TildalWave
    Commented Oct 23, 2014 at 14:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Rikki-Tikki-Tavi I didn't say that you need a Saturn V or N1 to launch anything strategic, what I meant was that fear of the unknown is a powerful motivator and that the US general public feared Soviet capability to manage near-Earth space. N1 was a big unknown and all US intelligence had was that it existed with some blurry spy photos of it standing on the launchpad. The rest is vivid imagination of uneducated masses and political abuse of it to finance strategic space development. Apollo, although impressive by all accounts, was just a Potemkin village for the public in that sense. $\endgroup$
    – TildalWave
    Commented Oct 23, 2014 at 15:36

1 Answer 1


There are some who question the origin of the design of the Soyuz capsule - See "Was the Soyuz Design Stolen?" http://www.astronautix.com/articles/wastolen.htm for more details.

Per the above Astronautix.com article:

The General Electric Apollo D-2 / Soyuz Design Concept

The fundamental concept of both designs can easily be summarised as obtaining minimum overall vehicle mass for the mission. This is accomplished by minimising the mass of the re-entry vehicle. There were two major design elements to achieve this:

  • Put all systems and space not necessary for re-entry and recovery outside of the re-entry vehicle, into a separate jettisonable 'mission module', joined to the re-entry vehicle by a hatch. Every gram saved in this way saves two or more grams in overall spacecraft mass - for it does not need to be protected by heat shields, supported by parachutes, or braked on landing.

  • Use a re-entry vehicle of the highest possible volumetric efficiency (internal volume divided by hull area). Theoretically this would be a sphere. But re-entry from lunar distances required that the capsule be able to bank a little, to generate lift and 'fly' a bit. This was needed to reduce the G forces on the crew to tolerable levels. Such a manoeuvre is impossible with a spherical capsule. After considerable study, the optimum shape was found to be the Soyuz 'headlight' shape - a hemispherical forward area joined by a barely angled cone (7 degrees) to a classic spherical section heat shield.

This design concept meant splitting the living area into two modules - the re-entry vehicle, with just enough space, equipment, and supplies to sustain the crew during re-entry; and a mission module. As a bonus the mission module provided an airlock for exit into space and a mounting area for rendezvous electronics.

The end result of this design approach was remarkable. The Apollo capsule designed by NASA had a mass of 5,000 kg and provided the crew with six cubic meters of living space. A service module, providing propulsion, electricity, radio, and other equipment would add at least 1,800 kg to this mass for the circumlunar mission. The General Electric D-2 or Soyuz spacecraft provided the same crew with 9 cubic meters of living space, an airlock, and the service module for the mass of the Apollo capsule alone!

The modular concept was also inherently adaptable. By changing the fuel load in the service module, and the type of equipment in the mission module, a wide variety of missions could be performed. The superiority of this approach is clear to see: the Soyuz remains in use 30 years later, while the Apollo was quickly abandoned.

General Electric Apollo D-2 design; Image from The  Unwanted Blog on up-ship.com

General Electric Apollo D-2 design; Image from The Unwanted Blog on up-ship.com

  • $\begingroup$ This is some interesting information, but is it supposed to suggest that someone stole someone else's design? $\endgroup$
    – Joe
    Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 19:08
  • $\begingroup$ This is rather tenuous. Soyuz resembles Vostok as much as this Apollo D-2 design. And if there is a link, it's not necessarily due to espionage: the D-2 design was published in 1961. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 20:40
  • $\begingroup$ Hobbes - It is not just the shape of the re-entry capsule, but also the fact that it is located between the service and orbital modules. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 29, 2014 at 12:36

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