Meet the Manned Orbiting Laboratory
At the peak of the space race – when the Soviet Union was considered a threat, and the Beatles were a hot new band invading American music – the United States had a partially classified human space program. It was called the Manned Orbiting Laboratory.
First announced in December 1963, the program's public aim was to figure out the "military usefulness" of putting a human into space. Its real, classified aim was to put a crewed surveillance satellite into orbit to spy on the Soviet Union. The program never got into space.
The program was cancelled in June 1969 (the month before humans landed on the moon) due to budgetary concerns. In late 2015, the National Reconnaissance Office released hundreds of photos and documents about the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. Here are some of the best ones.
Up first: An early space station
An early space station
An undated artist's conception of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. The picture shows the station being powered by solar panels. A telescope juts out to the right of the station. The spacecraft at top is a version of the two-person Gemini spacecraft that NASA flew in Earth orbit between 1964 and 1966.
MOL operated for more than five years and spent $1.56 billion in 1969 dollars ($130 billion in 2016). According to the National Reconnaissance Office, the program was cancelled because of budgetary pressure from the Apollo program and the Vietnam War. There also was a political perception that MOL duplicated what NASA was doing with its human spaceflight program.
Up next: A 1960s Vision
A 1960s Vision
This early concept for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory shows one possible design of the military space station during its initial development.
Designers would eventually streamline the project to fit on a Titan rocket and be serviced by astronauts on Gemini space capsules.
Up next: A Closer Look at MOL
A Closer Look at MOL
The U.S. military's Manned Orbiting Laboratory was planned in the 1960s but never realized. Here's a breakdown of what the military spy space station would have entailed. See how the Gemini-based manned spy satellite would have worked here.
Up next: Precise machining
This is an early scaled model of the MOL. According to an NRO statement, MOL's justification was that humans could get better pictures of the Soviet Union than satellite photographs of the day could provide.
MOL was a joint program between the Air Force and the NRO. The Air Force was responsible for developing the actual spacecraft, while the NRO created the camera system and other specified subsystems. The Air Force was particularly interested in the program because the humans could ostensibly adjust their mission and photographing faster than a robotic satellite.
Up next: Titan Test Flight
Titan Test Flight
In November 1966, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory project hit a milestone with an unpiloted test flight using a Titan IIIC-9 rocket.
The mission launched on Nov. 3, 1966, from Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The rocket launched a mock-up of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory as well as a refurbished Gemini spacecraft as a Gemini B prototype.
Up next: The Gemini B capsule
The Gemini B capsule
The go-to vehicle for missions to the Manned Orbiting Laboratory was a military version of NASA's Gemini spacecraft, called the Gemini B, seen here in an artist's depiction. The Gemini B would launch a crew with an MOL, allow access into the station via a connecting tunnel at the capsule's base and then return crews to Earth by separating from the MOL, seen here.
Up next: Inside Gemini B
Inside Gemini B
Like NASA's Gemini spacecraft, the Gemini B was a two-person capsule. This view of the interior through an entry hatch shows the tight squeeze astronauts would have to endure on MOL missions.
Up next: Gemini cockpit
This is a version of the Gemini cockpit. Like NASA, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory planned to use a Gemini spacecraft to bring astronauts to space. The spacecraft was designed to be operated by two people, and was capable of working for up to approximately two weeks in Earth orbit if all systems were working correctly. [Gemini Program: Two-Man Prep for Moon Missions]
For NASA, Gemini ended up being a key – but underappreciated – program to help get astronauts to the moon in the Apollo program. It tested key parts of space living such as doing spacewalks and performing dockings, all of which were untested by NASA prior to Gemini taking place. In less than two years of human spaceflight, it accomplished all major objectives.
Up next: Spacesuit development
Spacesuits are an integral part of any spaceflight system, and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory was no different. Here, individuals perform motions during spacesuit testing. The MOL spacesuits would be the bright blue seen at right.
Up next:Astronaut Training
This photo offers a crewmember's-eye-view of astronaut training for the U.S. military's Manned Orbiting Laboratory project in the 1960s.
Up next: Control center
This may look like a spaceship set from a science fiction movie, but this image depicts a design mock-up for the controls inside the Manned Orbiting Laboratory.
A joystick controller can be seen at center, along with a console with buttons and screens for other data readouts.
Up next: Practicing for space
Practicing for space
Preparing the Manned Orbiting Laboratory for crewed missions meant practicing tasks in spacesuits like the scene shown here to see how well the station's design worked.
Up next: The human face
The human face
Pictured here is a person dressed as an astronaut, doing MOL testing. Just like NASA astronaut selections of the 1960s, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory astronauts were named publicly. Their faces were known and in a now-unclassified memo, a policy relating to MOL astronauts noted there was a slight (but real) risk that they could be captured by hostiles if they landed in the wrong spot.
While NASA astronauts worked for a civilian program, in the 1960s they were mainly recruited from the military branches for security and qualifications purposes. A similar policy was in place for the MOL, although in this case the astronauts had to be able to meet "top secret" requirements due to the clandestine nature of their mission. After MOL was cancelled, about half of the astronauts transferred to NASA. Among them was Bob Crippen, who eventually flew in the first space shuttle mission in 1981.
Up next: Living in space
Living in space
Life aboard the Manned Orbiting Laboratory would require more than just military reconnaissance in space. It would mean living in space as well. Here, an individual is seen inside a sleeping bag designed for astronaut use on the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. Unlike in this photo, no ladders would be necessary to climb into this sleeping bag on the MOL.
Up next: Walking the tightrope
Walking the tightrope
The Manned Orbiting Laboratory never got to orbit, but it did get to assemble major components. In this picture, you can see a part of the massive hull that would have ridden into space behind the spacecraft. The astronauts would have had access to this area to perform experiments and do some of the main functions of the mission.
This was a similar design to the Skylab space station, which used a modified Saturn IV rocket stage to house the United States' first orbital laboratory. This allowed astronauts to stay in space, exercise and perform experiments for several weeks. The longest of the three crewed missions lasted 84 days.
Up next: Vast assembly
To create a large spacecraft, you require large facilities. According to a 2014 Space Review article, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory was built in a large Huntington Beach, Calif. facility. After the program was cancelled in 1969, the people working at that facility naturally lost their jobs (which didn't help California's aerospace industry problems at the time).
The Space Review, which perused many of the MOL documents, adds that as of 2014, it was unclear what had happened to the unused hardware. How much of it was completed, and whether it was destroyed, remained open questions decades after MOL's cancellation.
Up next: Underwater work
This picture shows a person in a scuba suit working underwater as part of Manned Orbiting Laboratory activities to prepare astronauts for spacewalks.
Spacewalks were an emerging skill for NASA and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. No one was very comfortable working in a “weightless” environment, and astronauts in the Gemini program reported many problems finding appropriate handholds and footholds on the spacecraft to get their work done.
Spacecraft tweaks were implemented. It wasn't until the end of the program, Gemini 12, that a spacewalk was able to complete all major objectives without exhausting the astronaut. [How NASA's Gemini Spacecraft Worked (Infographic)]
Up next: Space legacy
While space hardware (such as the pictured hardware) from the Manned Orbiting Laboratory never made it into orbit, the NRO noted in a PDF document that MOL did have a lasting legacy on space generally. While the astronauts had the most high-profile exit from MOL, personnel such as these ones were able to transfer to other security programs and use their knowledge from MOL, the NRO said.
The program also had certain spaceflight technologies that were recycled in other programs. For example, MOL astronauts had access to a more flexible spacesuit than Gemini astronauts because the MOL astronauts were required to move from the Gemini capsule to the lab once in orbit. This technology was transferred to NASA after MOL was concluded.
Up next: Modular construction
This picture shows a piece of the MOL being looked at by technicians. In the 1960s, spaceflight construction was an idea that you would see in diagrams – not something that was implemented for real. The International Space Station, however, saw many of its components assembled in orbit between the 1990s and the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.
This multi-module assembly was also a legacy of MOL, the NRO noted in the same PDF document. That's because MOL had proposals to launch more than one space module and then dock them together in orbit to create a larger structure. [Manned Orbiting Laboratory: Secrets of a US Military Space Station (Infographic)]
Up next: More releases to come
More releases to come
The 2015 document release of MOL, while heralded by the NRO, represents only a fraction of the information available on the program. The pictures shown in this slideshow – as well as more than 200 others – did not have captions attached to them. But the NRO said in the same PDF document that more information is coming soon.
“We anticipate releasing a new history of the MOL crew members in 2016. A CSNR [Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance] oral historian is preparing the history based on her interview of MOL crew members,” the NRO wrote.
Read The DORIAN Files Revealed
Many of the photos seen in this slideshow were part of a massive image and document release by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office on Oct. 22, 2015. That data release included The DORIAN Files Revealed (PDF), a 232-page compendium of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program.
For more in-depth reading of all the declassified MOL documents, visit the National Reconnaissance Office MOL page here.
- Elizabeth Howell, Space.com Contributor
Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is pursuing a Ph.D. part-time in aerospace sciences (University of North Dakota) after completing an M.Sc. (space studies) at the same institution. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @HowellSpace.
- Elizabeth Howell, Space.com Contributor on