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Review: Spies in Space

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Spies in Space: Reflections on National Reconnaissance and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory
by Courtney V.K. Homer
Government Publishing Office, 2019
104 pages
GPO Stock Number: 008-000-01348-9
ISBN 978-0-16-095038-4

In late 1963, the United States Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office began work on the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program. MOL quickly evolved into a reconnaissance satellite with a large camera system, soon named DORIAN, that would operate for approximately one month in orbit. Two astronauts would ride inside a Gemini spacecraft at the front of the MOL atop a powerful Titan IIIM rocket launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base into a polar orbit. The astronauts would look through spotting scopes at targets on the ground that MOL was about to pass over and feed instructions into a computer that would direct the DORIAN camera to take high-resolution photographs. As MOL progressed, the Air Force selected 17 astronauts to fly aboard it during multiple missions. By mid-1969, however, MOL was behind schedule and over budget and President Richard Nixon canceled it. Although parts of MOL were public, its mission and most of its technology was highly classified. It was not until October 2015 that the NRO declassified a large number of documents about MOL and allowed the surviving MOL astronauts to talk about the program.

Few people are going to plow through the hundreds of declassified MOL documents, so a book based upon them is valuable. But the most important material in the book is based upon the recollections of the MOL astronauts.

This summer the National Reconnaissance Office produced a book by historian Courtney V.K. Homer about the MOL program. Titled Spies in Space, the book is based upon the trove of documents released by the NRO four years ago, and interviews Ms. Homer conducted with six of the MOL astronauts: Richard Truly, Bob Crippen, Al Crews, Karol Bobko, Lachlan Macleay, and James Abrahamson. It can be downloaded as a free PDF from the NRO’s website, or purchased from the US Government Publishing Office.

Spies in Space is the most comprehensive account of the MOL program published to date. At 104 pages long (albeit in rather small print), it is not a lengthy book and could be consumed by an avid reader in a day. Few people are going to plow through the hundreds of declassified MOL documents, so a book based upon them is valuable. But the most important material in the book is based upon the recollections of the MOL astronauts, primarily contained in chapters 3 and 4.

Unfortunately, the book has some substantial limitations. MOL had a public face, and as a result, it was reported about in magazines and newspapers during the 1960s, although none are cited by the author. This leads to both omissions and distortions of the history. For example, there is little in the book about the problems the Air Force faced acquiring the land for MOL’s launch site in California—the owners did not want to sell, the government chose to exercise eminent domain and then offer a low price for the property, resulting in a lawsuit requiring the Air Force to pay significantly more for the land. The book fails to mention this. Similarly, the author refers to congressional questioning of why the United States needed two orbiting laboratory programs, MOL and what became known as NASA’s Apollo Applications Program that eventually produced Skylab. But congressional reaction to MOL was also parochial, with Florida politicians questioning why MOL could not be launched from their state like NASA’s spacecraft. These legal and political battles and other aspects of MOL were reported in the press but are not clearly reflected in the declassified MOL documents, so the author could have expanded the book’s coverage by venturing beyond official sources.

The greatest value the book provides is the astronauts’ stories. The MOL astronauts never began mission-specific training. In other words, they never trained on the actual equipment that they would fly in space for a specific flight profile. MOL was canceled several years before the earliest planned mission. Much of what they did was serve in a project advisory role, helping both government officials and private contractors develop the systems that the astronauts would use in space. For example, Truly and Macleay focused heavily on the computer and its software that would operate the DORIAN camera system. They had to determine how the astronauts would interface with the computer and what they needed the computer to do. The system was highly sophisticated; it did not simply point the camera at a specific target and take a photo, it dynamically tasked the camera system based upon inputs that the astronauts provided about clouds over target areas and which targets the astronauts determined were of greatest interest. It would be fascinating to know more about what the other astronauts did on a day-today basis. Who, for instance, was in charge of adapting the Gemini to MOL use, or developing the life support systems, and what did they do? There is not enough about the astronauts’ work, as opposed to their training.

Despite the huge number of documents released in recent years, as well as this book, there are still significant unknown aspects of the MOL program.

The astronauts did engage in a lot of generic training. Because they would be flying a Gemini spacecraft that could come down far from recovery forces, they had to conduct water survival training. They engaged in jungle survival training as well as learning how to avoid adversaries who might try to capture them. They also became scuba qualified based upon the expectation that eventually they would have to conduct underwater extravehicular activity (EVA) training in spacesuits. Sometimes their training could be perilous. Several astronauts recounted rafting down a river in Panama unaware that the river was rapidly rising due to upstream flooding. Several of them were thrown from the rafts and barely made it to shore.

Unfortunately, the material the author uses from the interviews is often repetitive, with different astronauts telling the same stories. Also, unfortunately, there are some missed opportunities. The author did not interview MOL astronaut Major Donald H. Peterson before or refer to his NASA oral history interview. Peterson worked with Major Robert H. Lawrence, the first African American astronaut assigned to the MOL program. In an interview I conducted with Peterson before his death in 2018, he told me of his fondness and respect for Lawrence, and how the two of them encountered racism during their travels to contractors.

Several years ago, I interviewed several MOL astronauts who mentioned that they were unhappy with the name of the 2008 PBS documentary “Astrospies.” They were not “spies,” they said, but reconnaissance pilots training to do a mission like other military officers flying U-2s and other aircraft. It is a sentiment that I’ve also occasionally heard from people involved in the development of robotic intelligence satellites who viewed their work as more legitimate and acceptable than “spying.” Thus, the title of this book may not be popular with some of the MOL astronauts. But this summer The Smithsonian Channel also aired a documentary in its “Atomic Age Declassified” series called “Spies in Space” that repeated the term. (That documentary is better than “Astrospies,” by the way.)

When MOL was canceled, most of the astronauts were shocked. Some of them, like Dick Truly, believed that the program had finally overcome some key hurdles and was making real progress. Al Crews, who had experienced the Dyna-Soar cancellation years earlier, claims to have been less surprised. Half of the MOL astronauts went to NASA. For the half who did not, finding jobs in the military proved challenging, especially since many of them were forbidden for three years from serving in overseas postings, particularly Vietnam, where they could be shot down and captured. For a military pilot, the most important ticket to punch is combat experience, and that was now impossible. Still, many of the MOL astronauts did well in later careers, making flag and general officer rank as well as flying as NASA astronauts, something that the book barely touches upon. A few of the MOL astronauts, however, left the military soon afterwards and faded into obscurity.

Although the astronaut interviews are an important contribution to the historical record, it is disappointing that the author did not also conduct interviews with engineers and program managers on MOL. The heart of the MOL, the DORIAN camera system, incorporated the largest space optics developed up to that time. What were the problems encountered in its development? How were such large optics made light enough for space use? How did the designers deal with problems like temperature variations across the mirror surfaces? How did they enable precise pointing, so that the camera pointed at a specific spot on the Earth and not a kilometer away? How did they integrate focus control and image motion compensation? And how did all of these challenges affect the cost and schedule? Perhaps that story cannot be told due to continued classification, but could it have at least been acknowledged?

Although the astronauts were vital to MOL’s development, including the design of key systems like its computer, astronauts were not in charge of the program, and often they only saw the outcome of decisions, like MOL’s cancellation, not their origins. Similarly, MOL was, to use a term that became popular last decade, a “system of systems”: not only a camera system, but a guidance and control system, a power system, a life support system, and a whole other spacecraft—the Gemini B—mounted at one end. This multiplied the contract oversight effort as well as the system engineering task. That story remains untold.

Despite the huge number of documents released in recent years, as well as this book, there are still significant unknown aspects of the MOL program. Most of these are technical. For example, what was the final configuration of the spacecraft before it was canceled? How much hardware was produced and what happened to all of it? Had the major technical issues, not just the computer system and its software, been overcome? How would MOL deal with spacecraft recovery and security of the exposed film? Had MOL flown, the Air Force would have very quickly exceeded NASA’s record for longest-duration human spaceflight missions. Would the MOL and its systems have been up to the task not only of keeping the astronauts healthy for a month in orbit, but performing the full intelligence mission? How would the unmanned MOL spacecraft have worked? What contractor would have built the film recovery vehicles, and how would it have compared with the manned MOL in both capability and cost?

A big murky question that I have not yet managed to fully define, let alone answer, is who opposed MOL and why. My own research has indicated that the CIA, which was battling the Air Force component of the NRO responsible for MOL as well as other programs, did not see the value in the very high resolution imagery that DORIAN would produce, certainly not at the program’s high cost. This is borne out by some declassified documents, but are there any retired CIA officials still alive who could shed light on this? Air Force officers in the NRO often viewed their CIA counterparts as arrogant, whereas CIA officers viewed many of the NRO’s satellite systems as sub-par. How did MOL fit in this story? Similarly, the NRO was constantly improving its robotic reconnaissance satellites. Were the people involved in these programs, many of them Air Force officers, also supporters of MOL, or did they view astronauts and all the equipment they required (air, food, water, a toilet) as superfluous to the highly important reconnaissance mission?

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An illustration of a proposed civilan variant of MOL, not the original version designed for reconnaissance.

The book repeats an error that the NRO has made on its website and that has unfortunately been picked up by numerous media articles, mislabeling artwork of a large spacecraft as the MOL. The artwork does not depict the operational MOL configuration, but a proposed civilian version of MOL that the contractor McDonnell Douglas was trying to sell to NASA. The unfortunate reality is that the more accurate illustrations of MOL are less photogenic. Maybe it is too much to ask that the NRO produce good quality artwork of the actual MOL flight configuration, but it’s certainly not too much to ask that they stop mislabeling their images.

A big murky question that I have not yet managed to fully define, let alone answer, is who opposed MOL and why.

The book mischaracterizes the MOL program’s cancellation. According to the author, MOL was over budget and behind schedule at a time when the Vietnam War was costing the United States military a huge amount of money, and this led to its cancellation. But the MOL cancellation is more complex and interesting than that. MOL was one of two major satellite reconnaissance projects under development at that time. The other was the KH-9 HEXAGON. Whereas MOL would look down at small areas of the Earth at very high resolution, HEXAGON would cover huge amounts of territory at medium resolution. Both programs were expensive, over budget, and behind schedule, and both used Titan III launch vehicles. The Nixon administration was looking for ways to cut budgets and was confronted with two expensive reconnaissance systems under development. Initially, Nixon canceled HEXAGON in spring 1969. But after an appeal from the Director of Central Intelligence, who noted that HEXAGON was vital for strategic assessment of the Soviet Union as well as future arms control negotiations, the cancellation was put on hold. A few months later MOL was canceled instead. Considering the importance of HEXAGON, its later success, and the limited utility of MOL, this was obviously the right decision. HEXAGON is barely mentioned in the book, despite its primary role in slaying the Manned Orbiting Laboratory.

Spies in Space is an important addition to the literature on Cold War satellite reconnaissance programs. But we still have much left to learn, both about MOL, and how it fit into the larger overall strategic reconnaissance program that helped keep the Cold War from getting hot.

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