NOVA: AstroSpies

Tue, 07/28/2009 - 8:00pm
Pictured: MOL's First Crew Preparing for intensive training
Credit: NARA
Millions remember the countdowns, launches, splashdowns and parades as the U.S. raced the Soviet Union to the moon in the 1960s. Few know that both superpowers ran parallel covert space programs to launch military astronauts on spying missions, and even fewer know what became of the military astronauts they trained. Highly classified for decades, these top-secret missions might easily have triggered a shooting war in orbit. NOVA travels to Russia for exclusive access to cosmonauts and their restricted space facility and obtains candid first-time interviews with astronauts in the American military space program in AstroSpies, airing Tuesday, July 28 at 9 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT21.1/ cable 1011/ cable 11).

Co-produced by investigative journalist James Bamford, acclaimed best-selling author of The Puzzle Palace and Body of Secrets, and Emmy Award-winning producer Scott Willis, AstroSpies uncovers new clues about the tensest period of the Cold War, when the U.S. and USSR were on the verge of war and desperate for intelligence on each other’s nuclear capabilities. 

In the U.S., the Air Force-run program was officially known as the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. The public was informed only that the project involved placing military astronauts in space to conduct scientific research. In reality, as the MOL pilots themselves tell NOVA for the first time, their actual mission was far different.

In fact, MOL was designed to be an orbiting spy station, with two astronauts operating an array of intelligence-gathering instruments, including a telescope capable of resolving objects on the ground as small as three inches. In never-before-seen footage, NOVA shows a mock-up of MOL’s interior, as well as astronauts training for different phases of the mission.

NOVA also interviews several of the unsung MOL astronauts, who speak openly for the first time about their years of training for the classified program. Although virtually unknown at the time, many in the MOL program went on to distinguished careers. A number flew aboard the space shuttle, including Henry “Hank” Hartsfield, who served as a shuttle pilot and spacecraft commander. Richard Truly, another MOL veteran and shuttle astronaut, went on to become administrator of NASA. Robert Herres served as the first vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And James Abrahamson headed President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as the “Star Wars” antimissile system.

So secret was MOL that much of the information surrounding it is still classified, and astronauts are even reluctant to talk about it today. “We did have a joke in the program,” reminisces Richard Truly, “that one day, there was going to be a little article back on page 50 of a 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.”

Not to be outwitted, the Soviets guessed the hidden purpose of MOL and designed a similar manned spy station called Almaz, three of which were launched in the 1970s. NOVA was given unprecedented access to a restricted Russian space facility, where a cosmonaut demonstrates the reconnaissance systems on a fully intact, never-launched Almaz ship.

With a cannon designed to destroy hostile satellites — or attack American astrospies — Almaz may have been the only manned spacecraft ever equipped for space war. When the cannon was test-fired, it marked the first shot on a potential battlefield of the future.