(This program is no longer available for online streaming.) Millions remember the countdowns, launchings, splashdowns, and parades as the U.S. raced the USSR to the moon in the 1960s. But few know that both countries also ran parallel space programs, whose covert goal was to launch military astronauts on spying missions. With investigative journalist James Bamford, NOVA delves into the untold story of this top-secret space race, which might easily have turned into a shooting war in orbit.
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PBS Airdate: February 12, 2008
NARRATOR: August 18th, 1960: 100 miles above Earth, a secret race in space has started. Corona, America's first photographic spy satellite, has just been deployed. The capsule was packed with over half a mile of film. The camera could capture images of objects as small as a truck on Russian territory, at least on a clear day.
JAMES BAMFORD (Author, Body of Secrets ) : The satellite would be taking pictures; a parachute would open; they'd go to all this trouble of capturing this capsule that's coming back down to Earth. Aircraft would rush it from Hawaii—where they're capturing it—to Washington, where they're developing the film. And then they put it on these big light tables. And they look at these pictures and what do they have? They have pictures of the tops of clouds.
NARRATOR: It was the nuclear missile bases under those clouds that Corona was supposed to find. The smartest engineers the C.I.A. could find had gotten it off the ground, but in space it was missing a human touch. Some thought it could never work without a human at the controls, without a finger on the shutter.
GENERAL LAWRENCE SKANTZE (U.S. Air Force, Retired) : The argument was that if we had a man up there, he would have more flexibility and judgment in looking at areas of interest.
NARRATOR: And spying was just one possibility.
JAMES BAMFORD: One of the more amazing documents that we got was this list of experiments. Among those were: going up there and capturing a Russian satellite, maybe knocking a Russian satellite out of orbit or completely destroying a Russian satellite.
NARRATOR: But the risk of launching astronauts on covert missions to space was enormous. Any attempt had to be kept completely secret. Only a handful of people know what really happened.
VICE ADMIRAL RICHARD TRULY (MOL Crew Member) : You just couldn't tell anybody about it, nobody.
HANK HARTSFIELD: I didn't tell my wife anything. I wasn't allowed to.
RICHARD TRULY: The program is still classified.
LACHLAN "MAC" MACLEAY (MOL Crew Member) : Nobody's ever told it wasn't.
NARRATOR: Up next on NOVA, a space story you've never seen, the story of the Astrospies .
NARRATOR: May Day, 1960, the height of the Cold War, and 13 miles above the Soviet Union all systems were go.
The CIA's secret U-2 spy plane was on a mission to confirm an alarming intelligence tip. A new Soviet nuclear missile base, close to the Arctic, was about to become operational.
JAMES BAMFORD: So this made the White House very nervous. It was in a position where it could launch missiles over the North Pole, which was the shortest route from Russia to the United States.
NARRATOR: The U-2's cameras were technological marvels, but the key to the U-2's success was the pilot's ability to find and photograph the best targets.
LAWRENCE SKANTZE: The Soviets, you know, would threaten us when they could get away with it, so we needed to know where their technology was. We needed to know what they were doing in the missile field, where the silos were, what kinds of missiles they had.
NARRATOR: The U-2's pilot was Francis Gary Powers. He thought if he flew above 60,000 feet he should be safe, no Soviet anti-aircraft missiles could reach him.
He was wrong.
LAWRENCE SKANTZE: When Gary Powers was shot down, the President said no more U-2 over-flights.
JAMES BAMFORD: So that put the United States in a very bad position. We had these U-2s, and we couldn't fly them over the Soviet Union.
ASIF SIDDIQI (Author) : You don't want to cause a provocation, and you don't want to be shot down, you know? What's the answer? Well, you go up into space.
MERCURY LAUNCH COUNTDOWN: This is Mercury Control. The countdown is now T-minus...
NARRATOR: Launch complex 5/6 at Florida's Cape Canaveral is a monument to the early days of space exploration.
MERCURY LAUNCH COUNTDOWN: ...4, 3, 2, 1, 0.
NARRATOR: Now a museum, it was once NASA's command center for the launch of Alan Shepard, America's first man in space.
MERCURY LAUNCH COUNTDOWN: All systems are go.
NARRATOR: In December, 2004, NASA special agent Dann Oakland was called over to the old blockhouse to help solve a problem.
DANN OAKLAND : ...was trying to find a key to a door that was closed for a good number of years.
NARRATOR: The lock was so old, Oakland's office was the only one that still had the master key.
DANN OAKLAND: There was no lights or anything, and we started looking around with flashlights. Buried back in the corner was a blue box.
NARRATOR: Inside the box he found something extraordinary: two spacesuits, different from any NASA spacesuits.
DANN OAKLAND: The suits were in pretty good condition, and they were just a little bit soiled. There was one that was 007 and then 008. They were just printed on the suits themselves.
NARRATOR: And there was something else that seemed strange.
DANN OAKLAND: That was a nametag that was actually on the sleeve, and it just said "Lawyer."
JAMES BAMFORD: I've been following space and espionage for a long time. And after I heard the story of Dann Oakland finding these spacesuits I thought it was extremely interesting.
NARRATOR: For James Bamford, an author and investigative reporter, that name, "Lawyer," became a window into a hidden world.
JAMES BAMFORD: There was a small article about these suits on a space Web site. And it was very curious, because if you look at the list of NASA astronauts, there's never been a NASA astronaut named Lawyer. But I did find the name Lawyer, Captain Richard E. Lawyer, on a list of pilots chosen to be part of an Air Force Space program in the 1960s.
When I looked closely at the program, I realized that it had been run by a secret agency inside the Pentagon. While I did manage to get some documents, much of the program, even 40 years later, is still officially secret.
Lawyer's name was on a list of 17 pilots who were chosen for the program. I managed to talk to him off-camera about a month before he died, and the information he gave me helped me find 10 of the other pilots who are still alive. It's an impressive group.
NARRATOR: Some of the pilots Bamford found became space shuttle astronauts. Vice Admiral Richard Truly even became the head of NASA; Lieutenant General James Abrahamson was put in charge of President Reagan's Star Wars program; General Robert Herres would become Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. None of them has ever talked publicly about the secret that ties them all together, an Air Force program called MOL. It's one of the great untold stories of the Cold War.
The story begins in January, 1964, with a new group of America's best military pilots arriving at Edwards Air Force Base, in California. They had been assigned to train at place called ARPS, the Aerospace Research Pilot School.
RICHARD TRULY: So I arrived at Edwards, into what they called ARPS—didn't know a soul.
NARRATOR: Run by Chuck Yeager, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound, ARPS was a school where some military pilots, with the right stuff, were groomed to become astronauts in NASA's civilian space program. This year it was different.
RICHARD TRULY: As we went through our student year, and got toward the fall, we realized that something funny was going on. And the thing that was funny going on was, they were actually conducting a secret, I guess you'd say crew selection.
JAMES BAMFORD: Without them knowing it, they were actually competing with each other for this program. They were being watched and being evaluated by these people to see who would make the best astronauts. The program was so secret, it was even kept from the potential astronauts themselves.
KAROL "BO" BOBKO (MOL Crew Member) : We'd fly in the morning, we would have classes in the afternoon, and we'd study and reduce data at night.
RICHARD TRULY: They would teach you astronomy and flight mechanics, orbital mechanics—the relationship of bodies that are in orbit, either around the Earth, or going to the Moon—stuff like that.
NARRATOR: For the students, it was more than just books and flying. They were poked and prodded, spun in centrifuges, bounced in chairs and battered with psychological testing.
RICHARD TRULY: And lo and behold, they finally came out with a list, and I was on the list. I almost fell over, I had no idea.
MAC MACLEAY: And then I had to go through a screening with a couple of other guys, to see whether I would fit. The previous height limit had been 6 feet, and I was almost 6'2". I was determined, so I pulled that helmet down so tight I was almost dying, but I just barely made it. I think there were about 100 people that started out, and to survive down to eight or so made you feel pretty good.
RICHARD TRULY: This was 1964. Nineteen sixty-four, only Mercury had flown. The Gemini astronauts were down at NASA. And here we were, going to get to fly in space, even though it was a military program. So we were sitting on the top of the anthill.
JAMES BAMFORD: And they finally did tell the people that they selected, but they only told them a cover story. They didn't tell them the real story about what they were being selected for. What they told them was that they were just going to go up to space and do experiments.
NARRATOR: Unlike U-2s or spy satellites, launching man into space just couldn't be kept secret. So a decision was made to call it a laboratory and to try hiding the project by putting it in plain sight.
NEWSCAST ANNOUNCER: Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States.
NARRATOR: President Lyndon Johnson announced the program and gave it a plausible cover story, something that Americans, if not the Russians, would possibly believe.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON (President of the United States, 1963-1969 Newsclip: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I am today instructing the Department of Defense to immediately proceed with the development of a Manned Orbiting Laboratory. This program will bring us new knowledge about what man is able to do in space.
NARRATOR: The cover story was that the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, or MOL, would be a space station, crewed with two military astronauts for 30-day missions. During that time, they'd perform routine experiments on themselves and test their ability to do military tasks in space. There was no mention of an operational mission, nor any hint of espionage.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON: The cost of developing the Manned Orbiting Laboratory will be one billion, five hundred million dollars.
NARRATOR: It took three more months until the crew was finally told their real mission.
RICHARD TRULY: And that day really was an amazing day. We got briefed into the program as to what it was about.
NARRATOR: The MOL was actually an orbital spy station, equipped with a camera the size of a car. It would fly an orbit that would give maximum coverage to Russian targets. And the crew were no longer going to be astronauts, they were going to be astrospies.
JAMES BAMFORD: In essence, they were going to become the successors to Francis Gary Powers. Basically, they are going to be the people who are going to be flying over Russia now.
MAC MACLEAY: I think everybody was tickled. I mean, it was something that we really thought would contribute. We weren't going to go check how the African fruit fly worked under zero gravity, you know, we were going to do something worthwhile—okay—that we thought was worthwhile.
ALBERT "AL" CREWS (MOL Crew Member) : Before, I was going to go play with something. I wasn't really impressed by that. But now, we were going to take pictures, and blah, blah, blah, blah.
LAWRENCE SKANTZE: The argument was that if we had a man up there, he would have more flexibility and judgment.
NARRATOR: The plan was to launch a two-man Gemini capsule atop a 56-foot-long laboratory module. In orbit, the crew would unlock a hatch, cut into the capsule's heat shield, and crawl through a narrow tunnel into the pressurized crew compartment.
Inside, as seen in this newly discovered government film, the astrospies could look through a view-port and observe and photograph high priority targets in Russia and elsewhere. When the 30-day mission was completed, the astrospies would return to Earth in the Gemini capsule, leaving the laboratory module to de-orbit and burn up in the atmosphere.
With their highly classified mission in hand, the astrospies disappeared into a hidden world.
MAC MACLEAY: The only people you could really communicate with about what you were actually doing were people within the program office.
DONALD H. PETERSON (MOL Crew Member) : And when we traveled, we didn't identify ourselves as MOL or crew members or anything else. And I think, once in a great while, we traveled on I.D. that identified us as somebody else.
BO BOBKO: We didn't go around and tell everybody, knock on everybody's door and say, "Hey, I was an astronaut."
RICHARD TRULY: Although we did have a joke in the program that one day there was going to be a little article back on page 50 of the newspaper that said, "An Unidentified Spacecraft Launched from an Unidentified Launch Pad, with Unidentified Astronauts, to do an Unidentified Mission." That's the way it was.
NARRATOR: But despite the carefully crafted cover stories, despite all the safeguards, half a world away the Russians were carefully watching and listening. And they didn't believe a word.
VLADIMIR POLYACHENKO (Almaz Chief Designer) : We had some information about the MOL program from open and closed channels. We had our sources.
ASIF SIDDIQI: These guys in Russia were smart. They could look at MOL they could see, sort of, the general systems layout and they could tell you that this was something much more serious than simply applied military experimentation.
VLADIMIR POLYACHENKO: Russia was being surrounded by a network of American nuclear missile bases, and we needed information on the locations of these bases. Reconnaissance from outer space was absolutely necessary.
ANATOLI BLAGOV (Almaz Designer) : We faced the problem of how potential targets could be identified and located. That's how the Almaz project was born.
NARRATOR: In Russian, Almaz means "a diamond in the rough." Almaz was the code name for the Soviet spy ship, a code name that could never be spoken. Almaz was a state secret, a spacecraft the Soviets hoped would dwarf the American MOL.
ANATOLI BLAGOV: It's not just a satellite or a spaceship, it's a whole complex, a whole system, that consisted of a number of elements. Its overall weight was about 20 tons.
ASIF SIDDIQI: We are talking about two massive, you know, 20-ton spaceships, in space, docked to each other, cosmonauts photographing the Earth, perhaps even doing some sort of battle simulations.
And it wasn't just going to be bigger, it was meant to be better. Unlike the MOL, Almaz was designed to stay in orbit for years at a time. Supply ships would ferry cosmonauts and equipment back and forth on a regular basis.
VLADIMIR POLYACHENKO: The Soviet Union, at that time, was ahead in many ways. We launched the first satellite. We had the first spaceman, so we believed we were ahead of everybody.
ASIF SIDDIQI: Almaz and MOL were, in some sense, kind of the shadow space race. It was the one without the parades.
C. GORDON FULLERTON (MOL Crew Member) : It's hard to remember the sense of conflict. The Russians were the enemy. They really were.
DONALD H. PETERSON: And the game became, "We need to beat the Russians into space."
BO BOBKO: During the heart of the Cold War, we thought of this big Russian bear as being all powerful and all knowing.
AL CREWS: I was always afraid that they were ahead of us quite a bit.
ASIF SIDDIQI: You can see the timelines of these two programs, and they were very much close.
NARRATOR: Hidden from view, an intensive training program began. MOL crew members began simulating life in zero gravity.
RICHARD TRULY: We did some of the work in zero-g airplanes, particularly learning how to crawl through that hatch in the Gemini B.
NARRATOR: One task the astrospies simulated over and over was one of the most basic: going back and forth through the hatch and narrow tunnel that connected the Gemini capsule to the laboratory module.
C. GORDON FULLERTON: One would go back into the Gemini through this really awkward tunnel.
HANK HARTSFIELD: As we progressed on the program, we got better at what we were doing.
NARRATOR: In an eerie parallel world, cosmonauts were practicing exactly the same maneuvers in Russian airplanes.
VLADIMIR POLYACHENKO: Even though there was no exchange of information between the Americans and the Soviets, we were thinking in the same direction. We also had a special hatch linking the main unit of the orbital station to the return capsule.
NARRATOR: To simulate life onboard the Almaz, Russian designers built underwater tanks with a mockup of the spaceship. There, planners had more time to study complicated maneuvers, like loading film capsules into the station.
Half a world away the Americans had developed the same solution. Former test pilot Bud Evans was put in charge of designing the underwater training program.
N.C. "BUD" EVANS (Former Test Pilot) : In the airplane, when you reached zero-g and you had maybe 40 seconds to maybe a minute-fifteen seconds at the most, so you really couldn't get a timeline on how long it would take somebody to do a task. And following that, we went full bore on simulating the MOL astronauts' task under water.
JAMES BAMFORD: They created an undersea training facility off Buck Island in the Caribbean. Under water, they dropped this very large mock-up of the MOL spacecraft.
NARRATOR: In film that has never been shown publicly before, you can see MOL crewmembers first putting on scuba gear; then donning their full spacesuits.
AL CREWS: It was very similar to what it would be in space. Cutting out some of the gravity, you can't move very well.
NARRATOR: With a more complete mock-up, the MOL crewmembers practiced more mission-critical tasks, like simulating how to move the packages of exposed film back through the narrow tunnel into the Gemini capsule.
BUD EVANS: We had to know how long these tasks were going to take. This was one way to get some real timeline studies.
NARRATOR: While both the astronauts and cosmonauts were training for reconnaissance, military planners saw orbiting spy stations as just a first step.
USAF TRAINING FILM: Any nation sufficiently advanced in space technology can convert a vehicle into a military spacecraft to deny the use of space to the free world.
NARRATOR: A 1963 Air Force briefing film titled Space and National Security depicted space as a battlefield and showed just how far the military thought that battlefield might extend.
ASIF SIDDIQI: In the '60s, this was a time of big thinking, on both sides. The Russians were really thinking grand. And we're talking multiple battle stations in Earth orbit, reconnaissance stations manned by dozens and dozens of cosmonauts.
JAMES BAMFORD: One of the more amazing documents that we got was this list of experiments that were going to be used on the MOL. Among those were things that be considered outrageous today: going up there and capturing or stealing a Russian satellite, going up there and maybe knocking a Russian satellite out of orbit or completely destroying a Russian satellite.
VLADIMIR POLYACHENKO: Of course, we did realize that the Americans tried to develop the satellite interceptors and killer satellites. So we decided to develop a special cannon that was placed on the orbiting station. We just wanted to test and see how it worked in outer space. If somebody wanted to inspect or even attack the Almaz, we could destroy it.
NARRATOR: But first, engineers and designers from both sides had to contend with some fundamental laws of physics, so that astrospies could monitor enemy territory from 100 miles in space.
C. GORDON FULLERTON: It's a mystery to most people who haven't flown in orbit what it's like trying to look at the ground as it's going by when you are going 18,000 miles an hour.
DONALD H. PETERSON: Just looking out the window with normal, or the equivalent of 20-20 vision, you could see tankers, oil tankers, in the gulf of Oman, and they looked about that big. You couldn't see anything smaller than that without magnification.
NARRATOR: The magnification system developed for MOL was the state of the art in optical engineering. The camera system and optics—an advanced set of folded mirrors tucked into the station—were so far ahead of their time that a nearly identical configuration is still in use today.
JAMES BAMFORD: So if you picture a Hubbell space telescope, this huge, bus-sized telescope in space pointed at the stars, if you just turned it around and point it towards Earth, that would be the KH-11. We had very high resolution.
NARRATOR: For photo analysts it is all a question of resolution. The higher the resolution, the smaller the object you can see on the ground. Extraordinarily, the MOL's camera was designed to spot objects as small as three inches.
LAWRENCE SKANTZE: The three-inch resolution was pretty critical to providing our people with the technical details of what the threat was and what the capability was.
ASIF SIDDIQI: The goal of people who do reconnaissance has always been to get the highest resolution.
DONALD H. PETERSON: But it's a tradeoff. The tighter you get the picture, the better the resolution you get, but the less coverage you get. What you really need is to be able to look at a big scene, and say, "Oh, there's something interesting I really need to look at over there."
NARRATOR: Inside a MOL training simulator, joysticks could zoom the lens both in and out and from side to side. A wide-angle viewfinder could spot targets at the very edge.
C. GORDON FULLERTON: We had optical eyepieces to look through with ways to point the line of sight, and they had photographs simulated to give you something to look at, test your ability to zero in on a point of interest quickly and accurately.
NARRATOR: The camera system was a huge engineering challenge. It required great precision while the target was in motion and the station was orbiting over the poles.
JAMES BAMFORD: They are trying to take a picture of something on Earth, as the Earth is going around on its axis at 1,000 miles an hour and they themselves are traveling around the Earth at 17,500 miles an hour. It was an extremely difficult scientific task to try to create a camera system that could take a very accurate picture knowing that everything is moving at a different relationship to each other.
NARRATOR: In both countries, engineers struggled to create rudimentary motion-tracking systems.
VLADIMIR POLYACHENKO: We had other devices for reconnaissance, but we needed to create a control system that could fix the camera on the targets to avoid blur.
ASIF SIDDIQI: On Almaz, they had a particular instrument which would basically freeze the image. They would actually have the camera move and compensate for the angular distance between a particular point. So as Almaz was flying over, the camera would, sort of, shift slowly to keep its sights on a particular territory.
NARRATOR: MOL's tracking and targeting system was computerized, but computing was still in its infancy.
MAC MACLEAY: By today's standards they were really crude. They were IBM 4-PIs. I don't think they had 50,000 words of storage in them. You could actually go to I.B.M.—I actually went there and watched, believe it or not—these ladies sitting there stringing these little magnetic cores on these wires to form the memory of this thing. You've got more in your cell phone, probably, than they had in those computers.
NARRATOR: But orbiting computers and tracking systems weren't what made the MOL extraordinary.
GENERAL ROBERT HERRES (Former Vice Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff) : The difference between the MOL and an unmanned system is that here's a system with people in it. People are, you know, hands-on in the spacecraft, making decisions and adjusting it and so forth. That's different.
ASIF SIDDIQI: You have to ask yourself the question: I'm investing an enormous amount of resources to maintain a crew up in space; now, what they can provide is a real-time analysis of the targets; they can look at something, they can say, "Well, this is something interesting, and we should be able to, we should find out more about this." But is it worth that amount of resources to have a crew just tell you that?
DONALD H. PETERSON: The MOL program to put human beings in orbit was going to cost more money, because everything had to be man-rated. There had to be safety features. It's extra weight; it means the vehicle has to be bigger, has to have more fuel. It just adds cost everywhere along the line.
RICHARD TRULY: MOL was a very expensive program. It seems like chicken feed today. It was a, I think it was a $3 billion program. But in the 1960s, that was a lot of money.
MAC MACLEAY: Think back in the mid- to late '60s, Johnson was the president. He was trying to fund all the Great Society programs; he was trying to fund the expansion of the war in Vietnam; he was trying to fund going to the moon on Apollo. And here we were, and we would take a cut, basically, every year. And we used to jokingly tell ourselves that the only thing that remained constant on the program was the number of days 'til the first launch.
NARRATOR: The scheduled launch date for the first MOL mission was August, 1970. The Russians planned to launch Almaz that April to commemorate Lenin's 100th birthday. But in November, 1966, the Americans seemed poised to make a huge leap forward.
At Cape Canaveral, a unique rocket configuration was rolled out to the launch pad. Atop the standard Titan IIIC solid rocket boosters was a hollow mock-up of the MOL laboratory, and atop that, workers attached an unmanned Gemini-B capsule. Designers needed to test whether the Gemini's heat shield would still work after the MOL's access hatch had been cut into it. Unlike most NASA launches, there were no astronauts on display.
RICHARD TRULY: You know, the NASA astronauts back in the '60s were all good friends of ours. We knew them all. We went to Houston, and when we went to Houston, they'd tell us all about what they were doing, and we wouldn't tell them anything about what we were doing.
MAC MACLEAY: We were different, that's all. You know, we weren't on the cover of Life magazine, we weren't driving Corvettes, we were, you know, just doing different things.
NARRATOR: At 8:50 on November 3rd, the MOL program literally got off the ground. Just over 100 miles in space, the unmanned capsule was ejected.
U.S. Navy ships recovered it 5,500 miles out in the Atlantic. The capsule was intact and proved that pilots could survive re-entry.
But surviving their training program was another question. Major Robert Lawrence was one of the final crew members chosen for MOL. He was one of the Air Force's best pilots; he had a Ph.D. in chemistry; and he was the first African-American selected to be an astronaut.
BARBARA H. LAWRENCE: Bob was such an excellent pilot that the idea of him having an accident really had never entered my mind.
DONALD H. PETERSON: They were doing a simulated shuttle approach in an F-104, which was a very difficult maneuver, and I think Harve Royer was flying the airplane. And he just misjudged a second or two, and that's, that's all you had.
C. GORDON FULLERTON: And I think they got too low, pulled out too late, actually hit the ground hard, bounced in the air and, as I understand, the airplane rolled.
DONALD H. PETERSON: And Hoyer managed to...they both ejected. Hoyer survived the ejection and Bob didn't.
BARBARA H. LAWRENCE: I was standing at home changing buttons on a dress, and I looked out the window and saw Bob Herres coming up the walk. I thought, "I don't have to ask."
That's what they call a life-changing experience you know. Suddenly, you know, in the morning everything seems okay, and then a few minutes later it's all over.
ROBERT HERRES: That morning, Bob wanted to change his flight, and wanted me to fly in his place on that particular flight. That's about all there is to say. I should have been in the back seat of that airplane instead of him.
JAMES ABRAHMSON: The accident served to make us realize that we really were a very small group. And we had a big problem. And that meant lots of training and that we expanded our efforts and increased our efforts.
NARRATOR: By the beginning of 1969, the secret race between Russia and the U.S to launch the first spies into space seemed to be neck and neck. Both sides had made significant advances, but they were both years behind schedule.
VLADIMIR POLYACHENKO: We thought that in the coming year or two, we would be able to launch the space station into orbit. Still our program fell behind by three years.
HANK HARTSFIELD: For the first time, I know I, personally, was beginning to believe. I believed this can work.
JAMES BAMFORD: While some of them might have been a bit worried about what the Russians were doing at this point, what they really didn't know was that the competition was less with the Russians than it was within their own government.
Right around the corner from them was another agency called the N.R.O., the National Reconnaissance Office. The National Reconnaissance Office was extremely secret during the 1960s. ...matter of fact, even its name wasn't de-classified until the early '90s. Their job was to try to find a way to put satellites up there that could get the very same resolution.
LAWRENCE SKANTZE: They were going to develop a competitive system, and the C.I.A. backed that.
NARRATOR: Larry Skantze, who had worked at N.R.O. and later helped plan MOL, was one of the few people with a security clearance for both programs.
LAWRENCE SKANTZE: Both systems were aimed at developing three-inch technical resolution. From a technical point of view, they kind of wound up in a dead heat.
C. GORDON FULLERTON: We were aware that there were unmanned reconnaissance satellites with truly impressive capability on the drawing board.
MAC MACLEAY: You know, there's the unmanned guys that said, you know, "We don't need you." And then, there's the manned guys that say, "Well, you can't live without us."
AL CREWS: Because it was obvious to me, the first time I went to a place where the unmanned system was being run; they didn't want any part of us. And somebody bigger than them told them to let us in to see it.
NARRATOR: Unknown to the MOL crew, the Secretary of the Air Force went to the White House to make a last minute plea to President Nixon, and the MOL's future hung in the balance.
For Hank Hartsfield, the morning of Tuesday, June 10th, 1969, was like any other.
HANK HARTSFIELD: I jumped in my little MG, and as usual, I had the little plug in my ear to listen to the local news, and was happily driving down 405, and they came in with an announcement.
DAVID PACKARD (Under Secretary of Defense/Audio Clip, 1969) : This morning the Manned Orbiting Laboratory has been cancelled by the Department of Defense.
HANK HARTSFIELD: Holy cow! What's going on here? There was two news stations. I switched to the other one to see if the story would be any different, and it wasn't.
RICHARD TRULY: I was in a meeting, arguing with an engineer, and I felt this tap on my shoulder, and I looked around, and it was Mac. And I looked in his eyes, and he said real low, nobody else in the room heard him, he said, "The program is cancelled."
And I turned around to this engineer that I was arguing with, and I...my mind was blank. I didn't know what we'd been talking about.
REPORTER (Audio Clip, 1969) : What happens to the 14 astronauts, now, who have been training for lengthy missions?
DAVID PACKARD (Under Secretary of Defense/Audio Clip, 1969) : Well, they'll find, I'm sure, appropriate assignments elsewhere. They're a very good bunch of boys, and I'm sure they'll have many opportunities to use this experiment in the furtherment of their careers.
REPORTER (Audio Clip, 1969) : Thank you.
NARRATOR: The end of the MOL program turned out to be as low-key as its beginning. Six weeks later the world focused on man's role in space, but they were watching Neil Armstrong step foot on the moon.
NASA CONTROL: Oh, that looks beautiful from here, Neil.
NEIL ARMSTRONG ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE 1969: It has a stark beauty all its own.
JAMES ABRAHMSON: The world was unified at that point, and I think everybody was happy that a human being had landed on another planet. By the same token, I would say that I still cry at night, a little bit, about not getting to go.
ASIF SIDDIQI: The Americans had just landed on the moon in 1969, which was probably the greatest event in the history of space exploration, so far. The Russians had completely been upstaged; they had lost the moon race. So Dimitri Ustinov, who is basically the effective head of the Soviet space program, demands something to respond to this.
NARRATOR: This is what the Russians came up with. This is the spy station called Almaz. Thirteen years in the making, the sole remaining capsule is locked away in a warehouse on the outskirts of Moscow. It is a closed facility, a place foreigners are still denied access. NOVA's cameras were allowed inside, but only with a Russian camera crew.
The Almaz capsule was divided in three sections. One section was the crew quarters: a rudimentary bed, a table where cosmonauts could sit and prepare food, a tank to sip water from.
Another section was mainly taken up with the sensors, largest among them the Agat camera, weighing more than two tons, with six-meter mirrors folded inside; and in the middle, the operations module, where astrospies could zoom down to almost any point on Earth; to show them where they were, a simple globe that depicted their point in orbit; a screen they could look at that showed them a 100-kilometer panorama of the world below; in front of that screen, a viewfinder that could zoom in to 100 meters.
VLADIMIR POLYACHENKO: We could see details that were half a meter long from 250 kilometers in outer space. For example, we could see the make of the car, if it's a Ford or Toyota.
NARRATOR: The entire station was gyroscopically controlled, designed to pivot as it passed over its target so that when the shutter was triggered, the pictures wouldn't be blurred. And on the outside of the station, a first for manned space flight: a weapon. A 23-millimeter cannon that could fire on an enemy satellite that might be flying too close for comfort.
In June, 1974, all of this was loaded on top of a giant proton rocket and rolled out to the Baikanour launch site. The Almaz capsule was covered with a shroud so American reconnaissance satellites couldn't photograph it.
Nine days later, Colonel Pavel Popovich and his flight engineer Lieutenant Colonel Yuri Artukhin were launched into space to dock with the Almaz station. They were the first astrospies to orbit the Earth. Their mission lasted 15 days.
Valeri Romanov is a cosmonaut who trained on the Almaz program in the 1970s. Inside the command center, he demonstrates how Popovitch's mission worked.
VALERY ROMANOV (Almaz Cosmonaut) : These are the synchronization levers. By pushing the button, we could switch on the camera. But the process itself went like this: here is the panoramic screen where I can see the ground beneath the station, and this is how I zoom in.
So, for example, I'm flying over the ocean and I spot a warship. I can see it's going a little bit to the right, so I can rotate the station a little to keep watching it and then film it. One, two, three, and I have a picture.
We had a special system to develop the film. You turned off all the station's lights and, in complete darkness, you put the film in the developer then moved out a projection table to fix the exposed film. Then you could select the most interesting parts and transmit it back to Earth with a video camera. So about an hour after you took a picture, people on Earth could be studying it.
Now let me show you the periscope and how it could protect you from attack. If you look through here, you can see outside the station and what's happening around it. Ground control can tell me something is going on, if something is approaching here, and that might be a killer satellite. We have the Nudelmann cannon right below the station's belly. So I try to rotate the station to face the object head-on and then feed in the command to fire. Fortunately that never happened.
VLADIMIR POLYACHENKO: We were afraid about what would happen to the station if we fired the cannon, so we never tested it with the men onboard. But after the crew left, we fired the cannon by remote control, and the station survived the intense vibration.
NARRATOR: Subsequent missions to the Almaz seemed star-crossed. On two missions, cosmonauts failed to dock with the spy station and returned to Earth empty-handed.
On the third attempt to reach Almaz, things got worse. The cosmonauts docked successfully and entered the Almaz, but on their 42nd day in orbit, as they passed over the dark side of Earth, the station's electrical systems suddenly shut down. Alarms sounded, and the station was plunged into darkness. Out of radio contact and drifting in space, the cosmonauts struggled for two hours to bring the craft back to life. When power was restored, the frailty of man in space became clear. The flight engineer suffered a breakdown and began experiencing audio hallucinations. No medicine on board could help. Six days later, the cosmonauts were ordered back to Earth.
In February, 1977, Victor Gorbatko, a Soviet air force colonel, was the last pilot to command Almaz. His mission was almost flawless.
VICTOR GORBATKO (ALMAZ Commander) : When we flew over the United States, I looked down and immediately recognized New York.
We could see human beings on the streets. I would say we could see objects about one meter in size. I had enough time to count planes on the ground when we flew over military bases. We just had to shoot film of any weapons we could spot. That was about all we had to do.
NARRATOR: Circling the Earth every 90 minutes, he said, the Almaz orbit was useful not only for spying on the U.S., but also on its allies.
VICTOR GORBATKO: Our main assignment with the Agat system was to film ships and planes on the other side. There was some military tension in Israel, so we had to count how many planes they had.
NARRATOR: To Colonel Gorbatko, there was a big difference between space espionage and space wars.
VICTOR GORBATKO: My mission has a peaceful character. We didn't shoot. We just took pictures. So we were space spies. That would be a good title for your movie.
NARRATOR: But far below, in Moscow, senior Kremlin officials were asking the same question their American counterparts asked eight years before. "Was this really worth the effort and the risk?"
JAMES BAMFORD: One of the biggest ironies here was that the Russians probably felt that they won. But in the end, it was a hollow victory, because they ended up, basically, coming to the same conclusion. It just took them about a decade longer.
NARRATOR: On February 25, 1977, at 9:21 a.m., Moscow time, Colonel Gorbatko undocked from Almaz and descended toward central Kazakhstan. He and his partner would be the last astrospies.
After 13 years of extraordinary effort by scientists from both sides, with billions of rubles and billions of dollars spent, only five missions had been launched, all by the Russians. And just two of those were deemed a success. For all the effort, astrospies had managed just 81 days in orbit.
JAMES BAMFORD: In the end, it came down to a competition of man against machine, and machine won.
VICTOR GORBATKO: Still, I absolutely think it was a premature decision to close down the program. They insist the space station without the pilots are more efficient. I would insist that is wrong.
MAC MACLEAY: I thought it was a good program. I think we could have done something really worthwhile. It was aborted prematurely, as far as we were concerned.
HANK HARTSFIELD: I think it was positive. I think...I'd like to think—and I believe I'm correct—that we had a positive influence on the way things would be going in the future.
NARRATOR: Two months before the last Russian cosmonaut left the Almaz, America's National Reconnaissance Office successfully launched its first KH-11 unmanned spy satellite. Said to be capable of capturing images with 3-inch resolution, but using video sensors instead of film, this was the digital age of espionage. This was what had rendered America's astrospies obsolete before they ever flew.
30 years later, dozens of unmanned satellites silently monitor the world below. They are also the astrospies' legacy.
HANK HARTSFIELD: When I look back at what we did on MOL, we didn't, far as I know, develop something that has led to another manned system. I think that the work we did helped provide data for future systems.
ANATOLI BLAGOV: Just yesterday, I went to the Google search engine and I could actually see my own house. Thirty years ago, who would have thought I would be able to see something like that?
NARRATOR: On NOVA's Astrospies Web site, hear from the astronauts of the MOL program, see spy photos that made history, and more. Find it on PBS.org.
- Produced by
- C. Scott Willis and James Bamford
- Written by
- James Bamford
- Directed by
- C. Scott Willis
- Edited by
- Geoff Gruetzmacher
- Director of Photography
- Neil Barrett
- Narrated by
- Jay O. Sanders
- Music & Sound Design
- Jonathan Mitchell
- Associate Producers
- Moscow Field Producer
- Zamir Gotta
- Moscow Camera
- Maxim Karmen
- Moscow Sound Recordist
- Dima Zhelyanin
- Sound Recordists
- Lighting Assistant
- Zakary Siddle
- Sputnik Animation
- Assistant Editor
- Magee McIlvaine
Jakob von Eichel
- Post Production Facility
- Palace Production Center
- Online Editor
- Francis W. Sheehan Jr.
- Audio Mix
- Chris Nelson
- Archival Material
Edwards Air Force Base
National Archives and Record Administration
U. S. Geological Survey
Maxwell Air Force Base
Kennedy Space Center
Johnson Space Center
National Reconnaissance Office
National Air & Space Museum,
Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company
Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library
- Special Thanks
N. C. " Bud" Evans
Valiant Air Command
Edwards Air Force Base,
Air Force Flight Test
NASA Public Affairs
- NOVA Series Graphics
- yU + co.
- NOVA Theme Music
- Additional NOVA Theme Music
- Ray Loring
- Post Production Online Editor
- Michael H. Amundson
- Closed Captioning
- The Caption Center
- NOVA Administrator
- Ashley King
Lindsay de la Rigaudiere
- Gaia Remerowski
- Production Coordinator
- Linda Callahan
- Raphael Nemes
- Talent Relations
Scott Kardel, Esq.
- Legal Counsel
- Susan Rosen
- Assistant Editor
- Alex Kreuter
- Associate Producer, Post Production
- Patrick Carey
- Post Production Supervisor
- Regina O'Toole
- Post Production Editor
- Rebecca Nieto
- Post Production Manager
- Nathan Gunner
- Supervising Producer
- Stephen Sweigart
- Business Manager
- Joseph P. Tracy
- Producers, Special Projects
- Coordinating Producer
- Laurie Cahalane
- Senior Science Editor
- Evan Hadingham
- Senior Series Producer
- Melanie Wallace
- Managing Director
- Alan Ritsko
- Senior Executive Producer
- Paula S. Apsell
A NOVA Production by C. Scott Films LLC for WGBH Boston
Â© 2007 WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved
- LT. Gen. James Abrahamson, James Bamford, Anatoli Blagov, Karol Bobko, Albert Crews, N.C. Evans, C. Fullerton, Victor Gorbatko, Henry Hartsfield, Gen. Robert Herres, Barbara Lawrence, Lachlan Macleay, Donald Peterson, Vladimir Polyachenko, Valery Romanov, Asif Siddiqi, Gen. Lawerence Skantze, Vice. Adm. Richard Truly
Reconnaissance and Signals Intelligence Satellites
This site offers an historical overview of American spy satellite operations from the 1950s to the present.
The Corona Story
Learn about the Corona spy satellites, which revolutionized military reconnaissance with their Earth-observing cameras.
International Space Station
Today, astronauts from around the world work together aboard the International Space Station. On this NASA site, learn about scientific experiments conducted aboard the station, read about past missions, view video clips, read interviews with key personnel, and more.
Skylab, the first U.S. space station, was home to three manned NASA missions between 1973 and 1974. On this Web site, find an image gallery, read flight summaries, and browse statistics.
National Reconnaissance Office
This government office is the command center for U.S. reconnaissance satellites, which made the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program obsolete before its astronauts ever left the ground.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
This military branch interprets reconnaissance satellite imagery and also works with nonmilitary branches of government to use its satellite images for disaster management, cartography, and other applications.
Spy Satellites and Other Intelligence Technologies That Changed History
by Thomas Graham Jr. and Keith Hansen. University of Washington Press, 2007.
Eye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites
by Dwayne Day. Smithsonian Books, 1999.
Spies in the Sky: Surveillance Satellites in War and Peace
by Pat Norris. Praxis Publishing, 2007.