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MOL image
While “Astrospies” offered some new insights into and images of the MOL project, the program was not without some errors. (credit: USAF)

Astrospies, corrected

Over the years, PBS’s Nova program has produced some excellent space documentaries. Two of the best focused on the Mars exploration rovers. In February of this year Nova aired a program titled “Astrospies”, focusing on the United States Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) and the Soviet Almaz program (see “All along the watchtower”, The Space Review, February 11, 2008). MOL and Almaz were military space stations intended to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance of the Earth. MOL was canceled before it ever had the chance to fly, but Almaz flew several times before the Soviets ended the program. The documentary is available on DVD for anybody who missed it and a transcript can be found here.

The producers of “Astrospies” deserve credit for shedding light on a long-ignored aspect of space history and in particular for getting a number of the military astronauts selected for the MOL program to speak on camera. The documentary included some excellent and never before shown footage, particularly of the underwater astronaut training at a secret facility in the Caribbean.

One problem with the documentary is that it was never very clear about the MOL program’s timeline and the fact that it apparently underwent a major transformation halfway through its life.

But the program also had some errors. This is understandable when the subject is obscure and largely remains classified. But in the interests of accuracy, this article will highlight several things that the program got wrong—not always errors of fact, but misleading or incomplete information. This article will focus on the MOL program, although the show spent a significant amount of time discussing the Almaz as well.

Not quite eureka

The narration for the documentary implied that the MOL story was previously unknown, and that the astronauts selected to operate the MOL had never before been revealed. Although MOL has not really been discussed in detail on television before, it has been explored in print. Curtis Peebles wrote a series of articles on MOL for Spaceflight magazine in the early 1980s and included a chapter on MOL for his book Guardians in 1987. Although based upon open sources, the MOL section of Guardians was remarkably detailed. There were also several lengthy articles on MOL published in the space history magazine Quest in the 1990s. Group photos of all the MOL astronauts have appeared in books and magazines before. “Astrospies” had new film footage and interviews with many of the astronauts, but they were not breaking entirely new ground, and anybody who had looked at some of these publications from a decade or more ago would not have learned anything really new.

Not present at the creation

One problem with the documentary is that it was never very clear about the MOL program’s timeline and the fact that it apparently underwent a major transformation halfway through its life. The documentary implied that many different missions were at least evaluated for MOL, but that it was always a reconnaissance satellite with a big telescope. My own research, backed up by thousands of documents, indicates that this was not the case. MOL started out as a multi-purpose space station, but by late 1965 it evolved into being primarily an operational reconnaissance satellite, apparently around the time that President Lyndon Johnson publicly endorsed the program (shown in archival footage in the documentary).

This timeline is interesting because of how it fits with the experiences of the former military astronauts interviewed for the documentary. MOL was officially started in December 1963 and the astronauts were recruited into an evaluation program—without their knowledge—in January 1964. But it was not until almost a year later that they were formally selected to become astronauts. They probably spent the first year of their training (i.e. 1965) preparing to perform a generic set of experiments on MOL before the focus of the program shifted primarily to an operational reconnaissance mission. So most of their knowledge of MOL really comes from its later years, not from the early years that it spent wandering in search of a mission. What the show really needed was a MOL program officer who had been there from the beginning and provided an overall view, not just the view from the astronaut corps.

The flying periscope/telescope

Another thing that the documentary got wrong was its depiction of the orientation of the MOL spacecraft. The computer animation of MOL in orbit was based upon images taken from the GlobalSecurity website. They depict MOL flying along horizontally, with a design that featured three mirrors in a tube, arranged somewhat like a periscope. An aperture cut in the side of the tube allowed light from below to enter where it was reflected off a big mirror down the tube to a mirror that focused the image onto a small mirror that then sent it into a camera or an eyepiece.

The MOL’s configuration—at least according to somebody who saw a classified image of the final version—was like a big Hubble Space Telescope with a Gemini spacecraft on top.

This configuration was used by several early American reconnaissance satellites, including the KH-6 LANYARD and the KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT. They all featured an image reflecting mirror and flew horizontally in their orbits. The reason they did this is because one end of the camera tube was capped with the systems for powering and pointing the spacecraft, and the other end of the tube was capped with a reentry vehicle (or vehicles) for recovering the exposed film.

But this is not the way you would design a reconnaissance satellite if you did not have to do so. Why carry that big, heavy image reflecting mirror into space if you don’t absolutely need it? And the MOL could use the Gemini spacecraft at its nose to collect and return the film (although my suspicion is that they probably had at least one or two small reentry vehicles as well). So the MOL’s configuration—at least according to somebody who saw a classified image of the final version—was like a big Hubble Space Telescope with a Gemini spacecraft on top. The Gemini pointed toward the sky and the telescope tube pointed toward the ground.

Blacker than… well, really black

The documentary also implied that the National Reconnaissance Office was also a rival to the MOL program. However, the few available records on this aspect indicate that the NRO was an active participant in the project, responsible for the reconnaissance payload. The astronauts interviewed for the documentary were apparently the primary source of information on the MOL program, and they were not completely open because they are still bound by secrecy oaths. Also, although this might be hard to comprehend, from their position in the program they were probably in the dark about a lot of the program justifications and organizational relationships. They might have had only a limited understanding of exactly what organization was responsible for the hardware that they were training to operate. They also may have correctly interpreted NRO hostility toward MOL—there is at least some reason to believe that some people at the NRO saw no reason to have people doing a mission that a robot could do at far less cost.

How many inches, exactly?

According to astronaut Lawrence Skantze, the MOL’s camera system was supposed to have three-inch [7.5-centimeter] resolution of objects on the ground. My own information, obtained from one of the people responsible for developing the MOL’s equipment, was that the goal resolution was four inches [10 centimeters], not three. Furthermore, if you take the size of the MOL’s mirrors and calculate their absolute resolution from the planned operational orbit, it equals four inches.

The MOL slayer

For the most part, these errors are relatively minor. But where the documentary really went off track was with its explanation of MOL’s cancellation in summer 1969.

The documentary makes no mention of the fact that by that time at least a couple of highly classified high-level studies by reconnaissance experts had demonstrated that MOL’s precision optics would be significantly degraded by the humans onboard to operate them, thus negating the entire point of having astronauts on board in the first place. My own research has implied that there may have been a study in 1967 and again in 1968, but no details have ever been released. It is not surprising that the producers were unaware of these studies, because many people intimately involved in the program were unaware of them, apparently because of their classification. Richard Garwin, a member of numerous military and science advisory boards at the time, has mentioned that he served on at least one study, and I’ve heard hint of another one.

What finally slew the beast was its high cost, its slipping schedule, its ephemeral benefits, and the war in Vietnam.

“Astrospies” claims that MOL was canceled because of competition from another NRO reconnaissance satellite program, the KH-11 KENNAN. This is the most egregious error in the program. MOL was canceled in summer 1969. But the KH-11 was not approved until summer 1971. Up until that point, the development of a real-time reconnaissance system was still a fierce battle between the Air Force and CIA components of the National Reconnaissance Office. MOL was tangential to that battle.

What finally slew the beast was its high cost, its slipping schedule, its ephemeral benefits, and the war in Vietnam. How exactly this played out in MOL’s final days remains largely secret. Many people were certainly surprised by MOL’s cancellation, including some senior officials. If they were aware of the highly classified reports questioning MOL’s capabilities, they might have thought that the program had weathered those storms. But a new president was now in the White House and arguments that might not have swayed his predecessor could have been trotted out again to a more receptive audience. MOL was expensive and making limited progress, so nobody should have really been surprised that it was so vulnerable to cancellation. But the KH-11 did not strike the final blow, because the KH-11 did not yet exist.

Cracking open the MOL vaults

Despite these errors, “Astrospies” is still a pretty good space documentary. We can only hope that some people in the Air Force and the NRO watched it and started to think that maybe it’s finally time for MOL to come out of the cold.