News | Nov. 3, 2022

The story of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory – part one

By Staff

This is the opening segment in a running series telling the story of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory

The Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) was as ambitious as it was secret, made to push the limits of what was possible in space at the time. MOL was designed to test new abilities and fulfill a top-secret reconnaissance mission of providing rapid response intelligence collection. Programs such as the U-2 provided excellent aerial imagery, but the United States required a better alternative due to the high risk of aircraft getting shot down. Early satellites like Corona were still in their infancy and not yet able to meet rapid intelligence collection demands. By launching a manned surveillance satellite into orbit, MOL sought to mitigate problems surrounding the technology at the time.

The war between Arab nations and Israel in 1948, North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in 1950, and the Suez Crisis in 1956 made decision-makers realize there wasn’t an adequate way to monitor global conflict. The culminating moment arrived during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The inability to collect timely, reliable, and consistent intelligence in the new nuclear age became apparent. The United States required immediate and on-demand intelligence collection in response to unanticipated events, and MOL was believed to be the answer.

In 1962, Secretary of the Air Force Eugene Zuckert informed General Bernard Schriever to proceed with studies of the MOL program’s viability. These studies began in earnest and the next 20 months were spent refining its design and goals. The program’s goal was to place a manned, high-resolution telescope into space to observe activities of the Soviet Union and other adversaries. Operated by a person on board, MOL would be able to avoid the issues that other satellites previously had: cloud cover and a time delay on film retrieval. Unlike traditional satellites, MOL allowed the operator to identify when and where to capture an image in real time. As Richard Truly, a MOL crewmember, stated:

“The idea was humans could help pick targets in real time, they could identify cloud cover and save film. The system was resource-limited because it was a film system, not electronic like we have now. But the whole idea was to have a far more capable intelligence capability because you had people there that could think and act and take action in real time during the flight.” 

The perception of the United States military operating in space raised concerns on how to portray the program to both national and international audiences. Prior to full presidential approval for MOL in late 1965, there was already considerable press coverage that was identifying MOL as a reconnaissance platform. However, the program’s top secret classification prohibited any publicly condemnation of such claims. This issue was well known to MOL personnel:

“The problem of the press must be examined recognizing that there exists no conceivable cover for the MOL reconnaissance mission.” – MOL Program Security, 1965

The reliance on rigid security protocols to keep public scrutiny about MOL at bay was not going to work. Louis Mazza, NRO’s Chief Program Security officer, devised a solution to preserve MOL’s classification and allow for public commentary. Rather than trying to construct MOL covertly, Mazza suggested to “admit we have a DOD manned orbital laboratory and its mission is to determine man’s potential usefulness in space.” This suggestion led to designating MOL as a hybrid program. Publicly, it would be acknowledged that MOL was to discover what man was capable of in space. This would be achieved with various experiments conducted in the MOL laboratory. However, MOL’s reconnaissance objectives, and its ability to capture superior imagery, would remain top-secret. While this would satisfy the security around the program, the final hurdle was how to portray MOL to the international community, notably the USSR.

There was concern that the USSR would view MOL as a military overflight of their country and demand an end to it immediately. Because of this, the U.S. Department of State pushed back on the program, but did not advise against it. Instead, the solution was to state the United States’ abhorrence to orbiting weapons, and reiterate that the goal of MOL was investigating and developing manned orbital capabilities. By August 1965, once program details were agreed upon, President Lyndon B. Johnson publicly announced the MOL program.

Read about the approved MOL program and its next steps in part two. Read part two here​.