Revealed — the Pentagon’s Scheme for a Spy Outpost in Space
Orbital station would have snooped on the Soviets
Early in the space race, the Pentagon developed plans for a manned spy outpost in space. However, the Vietnam War, sending Americans to the moon and better camera technology killed the project before it could ever leave the atmosphere.
In 1962, the top-secret National Reconnaissance Office and the U.S. Air Force kicked off the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, or MOL. Coinciding with the cancellation of the X-20 Dyna-Soar experimental space plane, the flying branch told the public the program had to do with seeing how troops might fare in space.
In reality, the Pentagon hoped MOL would lead to improvements in the Key Hole spy satellite family – which started with the KH-1 Corona in 1959 – and a better way to snoop on the Soviet Union.
On Oct. 23, The NRO gave a brief description of the project. The statement accompanied the release of more than 800 documents, nearly 250 pictures and video footage related to the MOL program.
The Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) was a 1960s Air Force program with the ostensible mission to place military personnel in orbit to conduct scientific experiments to determine the “military usefulness” of placing man into space and the techniques and procedures for doing so if the need ever arose. The actual, classified, mission of the MOL program was to place a manned surveillance satellite into orbit. At the time, several military and contractor studies estimated that manned surveillance satellites could acquire photographic coverage of the Soviet Union with resolution better than the best system at the time (the first generation Gambit satellite). Additionally, the Air Force billed the MOL as a reconnaissance system that could more efficiently and quickly adjust coverage for crises and targets of opportunity than unmanned systems. The Air Force controlled development of the satellite, which was consistent with MOL’s unclassified mission, while the NRO ran development of the covert reconnaissance mission of the program, including the camera system and other subsystems.
Secretary of Defense McNamara publicly announced the start of the MOL program in December 1963. However, even though the program had support for the military and the President, it was seldom fully funded due to competition from other DoD programs, NASA, and general governmental budgetary pressure. By the time initial studies, planning, and organization were completed and the program was ready to expand into full-scale development and production in the late-60s, budgetary pressure had significantly increased due to NASA’s Apollo program and the Vietnam War. At a time when the program required increased expenditures, its budget was being slashed, and as a result, its timelines and costs were expanded and increased. With growing pressure from the expansion of the Vietnam War, the perceived duplication of effort with NASA programs, and improved performance of operating unmanned surveillance systems, in June 1969 the President cancelled the MOL program, and with it, the Air Force’s last chance to develop a manned space flight program. The MOL program operated for five and one half years and spent $1.56 billion, but never launched a manned vehicle into space.
After nearly 50 years, the Pentagon is only declassifying this material now … and some of the documents still have redactions.
Seen above, the undated film – presumably recorded by Pentagon personnel or contractors at a General Electric facility from the prominently displayed logo – is entirely silent as a man in a white coat motions to various parts of an MOL prototype or mock up.
Censors redacted a whole section from a 1964 Aerospace Corporation briefing on the technical details of the spying “laboratory.” And while the presentation lists reconnaissance and surveillance, bioastronautics and “general testing” as areas of interest in the program, NRO reviewers blacked out a fourth line of inquiry.
Still based in Virginia today, Aerospace Corporation outlined a “typical” MOL layout incorporating powerful cameras, infrared sensors and side-looking radars. The panoramic camera and infrared scanners would be able to cover areas up to 200 miles across.
A year later, another Aerospace Corporation briefing explained that the spy stations would be able to shoot high-resolution pictures of specific locations on land and sea, scoop up electronic signals, locate their targets with precision and shift their orbits relatively quickly. Again, one of the potential missions is redacted.
Other documents in the dump outline the public relations campaign to keep the project’s true objectives secret — and possible complaints from the Soviets. And three years before canning the MOL program entirely, the Pentagon was already looking at an entirely unmanned satellite using the same camera gear, the KH-10, codenamed Dorian.
In the end, the crewed and pilotless versions of Dorian failed to make it into outer space – due to competition for funding and better equipment in development. In 1976, NRO launched the first improved KH-11 spy satellite into orbit.
Unlike earlier types, the KH-11 could transmit information directly to a ground station electronically, allowing spooks to get images in real-time so long as the satellites were in the right place. On Aug. 28, 2013, the NRO’s Launch 65 – a.k.a. NROL 65 – sent the last KH-11 into space, bringing the entire Key Hole program to a close.