So You Want to Steal A Space Station

iss047e061100 NASA John­son

Let’s be hon­est: build­ing space sta­tions is a dif­fi­cult, expen­sive busi­ness. Con­struct­ing one takes an extra­or­di­nary effort: the ISS, for exam­ple, required more than 100 EVAs to assem­ble and main­tain its 159 com­po­nents, and that is despite exten­sive usage of Rus­si­a’s advanced autonomous space­flight sys­tems.

Launch­ing this stuff into space is no joke: the first mod­ule of the ISS, the Func­tion­al Car­go Block (or Zarya), weighs more than 42,000 lbs. Even if you were to use Space X’s opti­mistic cost-per-pound of $2,500, that sin­gle com­po­nent could cost more than $105 mil­lion. The ISS cur­rent­ly weighs some­thing like 900,000 pounds. Do the math: even build­ing some­thing con­sid­er­ably less grandiose could still cost an incred­i­ble amount of mon­ey.

So build­ing your own space sta­tion is hard. What about steal­ing some­one else’s? It’s seems a bit ridicu­lous to pon­der, but let’s stretch our brains a bit.


The first ques­tion is why you would want to: rea­sons like pres­tige, research, and engi­neer­ing test beds make sense for build­ing one, but steal­ing does­n’t quite fit the bill. All it would prove is that you could seize it and kick the sci­en­tists back down the grav­i­ty well.

One pos­si­ble rea­son to steal some­one else’s space sta­tion is a pow­er dilem­ma: you’re wor­ried they’re build­ing or research­ing some­thing that you want for your­self: whether a med­ical break­through, a new type of mate­ri­als sci­ence, or even a weapons sys­tem. While the 1967 Out­er Space Treaty for­bids any weapons in space, the Sovi­et Union test-fired a 23-mil­lime­ter space can­non, the R‑23M Kartech, on its Almaz mil­i­tary sta­tion just before being deor­bit­ed. Coun­tries can build for­bid­den things in secret, and prob­a­bly do all the time — think about what the US Air Force’s unmanned X‑37 drone is doing up there: we don’t know!

Anoth­er pos­si­ble rea­son is that it’s just part of a con­flict. While the ISS is very much a joint ven­ture between the U.S., Cana­da, Europe, and Rus­sia, maybe one of the mem­ber states wants to seize con­trol of, say, the next Chi­nese Tian­gong sta­tion (or vice-ver­sa). Grant­ed, in a con­flict between Chi­na and the west, there would be more press­ing issues than the fate of a space sta­tion, but there’s no deny­ing that seiz­ing one would make for a pow­er­ful tes­ta­ment to either side’s prowess.

Next up we should think of the how.

Hack The Gibsons

The eas­i­est might not involve lay­ing hands on it in the slight­est. The ISS is held aloft by orbital mechan­ics: it’s being con­stant­ly pulled to the ground, but because it was accel­er­at­ed to such a high speed, it is able to trav­el over the hori­zon before it would hit the ground — in oth­er words, its path over the earth is curved at the exact same cir­cu­lar angle as the ground under­neath it. But the ISS is not out of the atmos­phere: at around 212 miles, it is still well with­in the thin whisps of the exos­phere. Grant­ed, the den­si­ty of air at that alti­tude is extreme­ly low, but the ISS needs con­stant boost­ing from its resup­ply ves­sels (drones man­u­fac­tured by Rus­sia, Japan, the EU, and now Space X) in order for it to main­tain its veloc­i­ty and thus, its alti­tude.

Those robot drones require a lot of com­put­er­i­za­tion to work, and they are in con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the ground in order to ensure that they func­tion prop­er­ly. In the­o­ry, alter­ing that code would allow some­one to effec­tive­ly seize con­trol of the sta­tion itself. Same with tam­per­ing with the sig­nals sent to ground con­trol.

There are also numer­ous com­put­ers to tam­per with as well. Most of the sys­tems on the ISS run on Leno­vo T61P lap­tops, which prob­a­bly were not infect­ed with Super­fish mal­ware, but are nev­er­the­less vul­ner­a­ble to attacks. On the ISS, most of the lap­tops are for­mat­ted with cus­tomized Lin­ux soft­ware, and it’s unclear how secure the soft­ware is to exploits.

Seiz­ing con­trol of a space sation in this way would­n’t be quite the same as phys­i­cal­ly seiz­ing it, but it would dis­rupt sta­tion oper­a­tions so much that it would grant effec­tive con­trol, at least until the oth­er side could fig­ure out how to hard­en their sys­tems against future attacks.

Storm the Station

Then there’s the most fun idea: phys­i­cal­ly tak­ing con­trol. This would be the hard­est option for tak­ing a space sta­tion. The way orbital mechan­ics work, there real­ly isn’t any such thing as sneak­ing up on a facil­i­ty in space: you’ll see it approach­ing, whether from sun­light glint­ing off a win­dow or from puffs of gas escap­ing the maneu­ver­ing thrusters. More­over, unless you want to seri­ous­ly risk either col­lid­ing with (and there­by destroy­ing) the sta­tion, or miss­ing it and sail­ing off into an unre­cov­er­able orbit, you have to approach fair­ly slow­ly. So the tar­get will see the attack­ing from a ways off.

This means the tar­get­ed space sta­tion would have a lot of tools at their dis­pos­al for fend­ing off an approach­ing strike team: it could be some­thing as sim­ple as using the sta­tion’s own thrusters to pre­vent a prop­er dock­ing up to induc­ing a sta­tion-wide spin — which would be extreme­ly dam­ag­ing but would at least pre­ven seizure. In addi­tion, dur­ing the long approach phase of the assault, the defend­ing coun­try would have oth­er weapons on hand to pre­vent it: both Chi­na and the U.S. have demon­strat­ed the capac­i­ty to fire mis­siles at satel­lites and destroy them, and Rus­sia is devel­op­ing its own capa­bil­i­ty.

But let’s say you can get a space­ship close enough to attempt actu­al­ly board­ing the sta­tion. What then?

You need to get inside first. This is much hard­er than it is por­trayed in sci­ence fic­tion: air­locks are sen­si­tive, high-pre­ci­sion equip­ment, and they are easy to tam­per with if you want to pre­vent some­one from the out­side using one. Plus, the ISS does­n’t have very many, and delib­er­ate­ly breach­ing a docked Progress craft pos­es such extreme dan­ger (in terms of induc­ing spin, det­o­nat­ing pro­pel­lant, and so on) I doubt any assault force would want to risk it.

Maybe you could com­pro­mise the com­put­er sys­tems such that the sta­tion crew was­n’t able to inter­fere with your board­ing par­ty. Maybe you bring along one of those Russ­ian space can­nons and present two alter­na­tives: be escort­ed into a reen­try vehi­cle or be killed. Or maybe you go left field and send in a bunch of small, pur­pose built robots to effec­tive­ly seize con­trol of the sta­tion’s mechan­i­cal sys­tems so that you don’t have to wor­ry about send­ing an assault team.

Really, Why Bother

But ulti­mate­ly, there’s no real rea­son to both­er with it. Space Sta­tions are vul­ner­a­ble, ten­u­ous things. If a war with Chi­na or Rus­sia ever did esca­late to space, there would be a much big­ger prob­lem with blow­ing up comms and nav­i­ga­tion satel­lites than wor­ry­ing over a space sta­tion (and hooray Kessler syn­drome). Destroy­ing the sta­tion is so much eas­i­er than try­ing to steal it, and you’d still gain the notor­e­ity from destroy­ing such a mas­sive accom­plish­ment.

While seiz­ing a space sta­tion now is a sil­ly thing to pon­der, it won’t be in the future. Deter­min­ing juris­dic­tion in space is a very hard prob­lem, and an attack or attempt on a future space facil­i­ty can­not be ruled out even if it’s too much trou­ble with our cur­rent lev­el of tech­nol­o­gy. Whether hard­en­ing com­put­er sys­tems or invent­ing phys­i­cal secu­ri­ty schemes for future out­posts, it would be worth exam­in­ing what, exact­ly, it will take to remain safe and secure as we push out the bound­aries of where humans can trav­el.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.