On October 22, 2015 the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) declassified and released 282 rarely or never before seen images and 825 confidential records (a total of 20,681 pages) about the so called Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), the project which would have sent American astronauts to orbit over the Soviet Union in order to take better photos than the best system at the time.

The huge trove of documents–a truly nice pre-Christmas present for space history researchers–reveals a lot of real aspects of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), publicly announced in December 1963. The ostensible mission of the United States Air Force program was to conduct scientific experiments upon astronauts in orbit, meanwhile the classified goal was to place a crewed surveillance satellite into orbit, using Gemini B spacecraft and Titan IIIC rockets. As NRO explains:

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.

After initial studies, planning, organizing, and one test launch in 1966 were completed, the program was ready to expand into full scale development and production at the end of the decade. But, it never got fully funded due to competition from other defense projects, NASA’s Apollo program, better and better spy satellites, and the Vietnam War. The end was inevitable:

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.

The following set of images lets you peek inside one of the least known military space project, cancelled three years after its one and only uncrewed test flight.

The MOL assembly and integration building (Huntington Beach, California) in a cutaway illustration and in photo

Artist’s impression of the MOL crewed spying space station

Scale model of the space station module where two USAF astronauts were to snap photos of the USSR

An early and a more detailed MOL scale model

Astronaut training in a full scale mockup

Space suit tests

Underwater training

Control panels of the MOL Gemini B spacecraft


Photos from inside the MOL vehicle assembly plant

Transporting by air

All images by NRO. H/T to Space Hipsters.