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.
(Now, before we get started, I should probably mention to any supervillians or countries reading this that we in no way condone the theft of the Space Shuttle, or 300,000 lbs of any public property. We're just having fun here.)
Actually, the second LAPD officer qualified "not impossible" by saying it would take "supernatural powers," but I get the idea. It'd be really, really hard.
Naturally, I couldn't quit thinking about it. After sketching out some bad ideas and consulting both the Jalopnik Council of Elders and our mainframe (located deep below Los Angeles, in one of Barry White's old hot tubs), I think I came up with a viable plan, in seven steps. Here it is:
What would you need to pull this off? The biggest factor is probably cost. This won't be cheap. While Bond supervillans tend to have these sorts of facilities and liquidity, they don't really exist, and I want to keep this at least tenuously grounded in something that seems like reality. Without supervillans, the only entity really able to pull something like this off would be a country. A wealthy country, with a knack for precision and planning. A country with a motive, like maybe a strange fixation on neutrality to the degree they've made their country a fortress and they may be interested in getting a spaceship for an off-world colony, fast.
I'm talking about Switzerland.
Plus, the Swiss have a national airline, which we'll need, and the resources to buy the 20 heavy-lift helicopters (each can lift over 30,000 lbs, so ten could lift the shuttle orbiter) and a surplus, abandoned Soviet Buran Shuttle. Oh, and the submarine modified with a huge, water-tight cargo hold that can fit the shuttle orbiter.
None of these things are easy (well, buying the Buran's not too hard) but I'm pretty confident Switzerland could acquire any of these items.
Okay, that's what we're going to need, so now let's focus on where we're going to do this. In some ways, this was the easy part. See, before the Shuttle can cross the 405, it needs to be transfered to a different hauling rig that has the median-clearing and other clearances they need. To do this, they'll be parking the Shuttle transport assembly near where Sepulveda Blvd meets La Tijera Rd— and they'll be staying there nine hours. This will be at about 4 am, and is not an open-to-the-public viewing area.
This will be the only time the shuttle will be unsecured from the transport rig for the duration of the journey.
Please note that the location is very close to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). That becomes important right in step one.
Okay, we're ready for step one. The Swiss state-run airline, Swissair, will have a flight scheduled to head into LAX right around 4 am. This flight will have only a highly-trained pilot and co-pilot, and the rest of the plane will be filled with materials that produce thick, acrid smoke when burned. You know like potassium chlorate or elf droppings or whatever it is they use in smoke bombs and the like. A lot of it.
Just as the plane is heading into LAX, the pilot will radio that something's gone very wrong— at that point, the Swiss operative at the controls will steer the plane upwind of the Shuttle staging site at Sepulveda and La Tijera, and deliberately crash the plane nearby. The location will be as close as possible without damaging the shuttle and minimizing the collateral damage to the surrounding area.
The pilot and co-pilot will have bailed out before the crash, silently, with black parachutes and clothing, and will vacate the area immediately. The plane will now be crashed into the ground, spewing a massive column of smoke.
The plane crash, of course, will cause a colossal amount of chaos, especially so close to the Shuttle. Police and air traffic controllers and all available officials will be focused on the crashed plane, giving the Swiss their opening. When the chaos is at its climax, a fleet of 10 Sikorsky CH-53E heavy lift helicopters wearing NASA Emergency Rescue livery will show up, and heroically inform everyone that they're here to take the Shuttle to a more secure location, away from the fire, and all that, back at LAX.
In these circumstances, who's going to question ten official-looking choppers? The workers will help secure the tow lines to the Shuttle, and they'll watch the choppers take the precious spacecraft off to safety.
The thing is, they won't be able to watch for long, what with all that dense smoke in the air. The Swiss choppers will fly right into the densest part of the smoke, where they will rendezvous with another ten helicopters, identical in every way, except the shuttle they're holding is the gutted, scrapyard-find Buran shuttle, which has been painted and detailed (three fake main engines added, etc) to look just like Endeavour. It's already pretty damn close.
The two rigs fly off in different directions.
The choppers with the fake Buran-shuttle will continue on to LAX, where they will have radio'd ahead for a safe spot to place it, and have arranged for guards and security, none of whom will be able to spot the details that differentiate the Buran from the Endeavour.
By having what they believe is Endeavour safe and sound at LAX, all efforts will be focused on putting out the burning Swissair plane and looking for non-existent casualties and survivors. This will buy time for the rest of the plan to unfold before anyone even realizes the actual Shuttle is missing. If done properly, this could buy 24 hours or more.
Meanwhile, the real Endeavour is being flown a few miles West, out to the Pacific. While in flight, a crack team of Swiss military aerialists will wrap the Shuttle in camouflaged and water-tight plastic wrap, like they use for boats and other heavy equipment when shipping.
Once wrapped, the tethers holding the Shuttle will be released, sending the plastic-coated orbiter plunging into the icy Pacific.
This part will require some major engineering and sends us deeper into Dr. Evil territory, but should be feasible. The Endeavor will be recovered from the water by a purpose-modified submarine with a large enough cargo container to hold the orbiter. Internal storage is preferable to keep the Shuttle safe, but if it's not possible, the orbiter could be simply towed by a submarine, relying on the plastic wrapping to keep it from getting too waterlogged.
A little water shouldn't be too bad, as we were told in the press conference that 40 gallons was pumped out of the cargo bay before it came to Los Angeles. That was Florida rain and not seawater, so I'd still suggest Switzerland build a massive shuttle-holding submarine. I bet old Soviet hardware could prove useful here as well.
The Shuttle will be transported underwater (to avoid easy detection) to a remote island base that Switzerland would purchase near the equator. On this island, Swiss engineers will refurbish the orbiter, making her space ready, and preparing to launch her with an Energia heavy-lift rocket purchased from the Russian Space Agency. This particular setup will allow them to forego the three main orbiter rocket motors, as well.
My guess is they'll try and take over the ISS and turn it into an orbiting Neutrality Base. Soon the uninterested Eye of the Swiss will always be circling overhead, brutally ignoring us as the foundations for an even more unconquerable Switzerland are laid.
Man, now that I read this over, I think it may actually work! Who knows Switzerland? Tell them to call me — just don't tell them why, and make me sound cool if they ask. Thanks.