While the utilization of Gemini for the Manned Orbiting Lab program is not quite a “lost” mission, it never saw fruition. Some material on the program has been declassified by the NRO, but many questions remain. In the summer of 2019, NRO issued another history of the program, and here is my review of that report.

Book Review

“Spies in Space: Reflections on National Reconnaissance and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory”, Courtney V. K. Homer

Review by Michael Mackowski, 8/1/19

This is a new work issued by the Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance (CSNR) in May 2019. The CSNR is an independent research body of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The 104 page book is available as a pdf downloadand printed copies may be obtained via the Government Publishing Office.

The book was written by the NRO’s Oral Historian and the content focuses on excerpts from those interviews (done since 2014) and highlights from the collection of DORIAN documents declassified in 2015. The goal was to tell the personal stories of those who participated in the MOL program, including the military astronauts and program managers. As a student of space history, I believe this book did a good job to distill pertinent excerpts from those interviews, as well as to provide more insight into the programmatic issues surrounding MOL.

Unfortunately, I found some issues with the editing, as well as misleading or erroneous captions on many illustrations, and a missed opportunity to provide context for the MOL/DORIAN program as it related to other contemporary reconnaissance programs.

When a quote from an oral history interview has factual errors, that should be corrected or somehow acknowledged, at least in a footnote. Karol Bobko made two such errors on page 46:

“McDonnell was doing the laboratory, and Douglas was doing the Gemini.” He had the two contractors mixed up.

“Some of us went down to McDonnell Douglas down in Huntington Beach where they were going to build the mounted capsule.” In the next sentence, he referred to McDonnell Douglas and Gemini, so I think he knew who built the Gemini capsule and this quote is referring to the crew module that was being built in Huntington Beach. Douglas (Huntington Beach) and McDonnell (St. Louis) merged in April 1967. A footnote would have been useful to clarify Bobko’s statement.

The book included an oft-repeated error in identifying spacecraft artifacts in the footnote on page 19. The Gemini capsule on display at the Air Force’s museum in Dayton is an unflown test capsule. The capsule flown on the MOL heatshield test flight in 1966 was Gemini 2 and is displayed at the US Air Force Space Museum in Florida.

The book covers the quandary that NRO faced in selling this program. The existence of MOL was public information but its true mission was highly classified. That made it difficult to justify adequate and continued funding. The MOL program also faced competition from unmanned space reconnaissance assets, which were becoming more and more capable, even as MOL sputtered along. The book includes personal perspectives on this but missed an opportunity to put MOL in context with other reconnaissance satellite programs like GAMBIT and HEXAGON. How can you issue a book on MOL with only two very brief mentions of HEXAGON? They may have had different missions (DORIAN was very high resolution imagery while HEXAGON intended to get wide area coverage) but the competition for resources was real. The performance details of these programs may still be classified but some sort of comparison of the missions would have been enlightening.

There is an interesting discussion of how the Soviets responded to MOL (oddly in two places, fifteen pages apart, p. 58 and again on p. 73). It is likely that MOL had some influence on the Soviets development of their military Almaz space platform. The book missed an opportunity to address this topic, but perhaps this was beyond scope of the book’s goals.

The reader will not find a detailed history or description of the technology behind MOL, nor really any new information on the design of the spacecraft or how it was to operate. There are interesting oral history descriptions of using the acquisition telescopes, for example, but there is no introductory text that describes the overall MOL operating scenario and why those devices were needed. The reader can eventually glean a bit of that after reading the sections, but the presentation might have been clearer with a technical summary up front. The concept of an unmanned version of MOL was presented more than once, but there was no hint of how film might be returned from such a spacecraft.

The book has multiple examples of poorly written captions to the (un-numbered) photographs. First, nearly all the source attributes for the photos were simply “CSNR Reference Collection.” Readers would find it more useful to have the original source of those photos identified. For example, the astronaut photos on pages 37 and 38 are clearly NASA photos. The selection of photos is curious as many are not representative of the true design of what a flight MOL would have looked like. Most of the photos, especially of the hardware, are not even called out in the text of the book. Examples of this type include:

  • Page 11. This is not exactly an “early drawing” but an undated artist’s concept of one of the many growth versions of MOL. This variant with two MOL vehicles docked tail-to-tail was far down on the list of early configurations.
  • Page 12. The artwork on the right is a speculative concept created well before the program’s true nature was declassified, so what is the value of including this?

Some captions are simply wrong or incomplete, such as:

  • Page 47. The spacesuit on the right is a MOL suit, while the one on the left is a NASA G4C suit used on Gemini. The caption fails to identify the NASA suit.
  • Page 48. While the caption “Practicing movement in the MOL spacesuit” is correct to a degree, the image shows test subjects comparing mobility between Gemini and MOL spacesuits.
  • Page 49. The caption “Practicing moving through the MOL tunnel” is not correct since the photo is not of the tunnel, but the ladder in the lab’s control compartment that leads to the tunnel.
  • Page 50. The caption “Flight control panel” would suggest that this is a MOL control panel when it is actually the Gemini instrument panel.
  • Page 55. The caption “Zero-gravity simulated underwater training” implies they simulated being underwater. (They simulated zero-gravity.)

I was disturbed to find that a government publication used copyrighted private sector artwork without correct attribution or credit to the original source.

  • Page 12. The artwork here is actually by Dan Roam and was copyrighted in 1997.
  • Page 45. This is not the “MOL program patch”, rather it is a recent commemorative patch designed by Tim Gagnon, who is not credited. There actually is a MOL program patch, but the author missed it for some unknown reason.

This book is a nice addition to the history of United States space-based reconnaissance programs, and it met its goal of providing some first-hand accounts from program participants. Because of the lapses in the editing I cannot recommend it without some reservations. It is s a fresh treatment of the declassified material, but it provides few new insights into the technical aspects of MOL, other than the personal stories of the participants, and perhaps that is adequate for some readers.

There is still much more of the story of MOL to tell although security issues may limit how deep the insights can go. What were the challenges and lessons learned in developing a large, manned spacecraft with a demanding optical payload in the early 1960s? The optical system for MOL was much larger and more complex than the concurrent GAMBIT system. How would that be achieved and be compatible with a crew on board? The 2014 interviews were apparently done with crew members and managers but not the designers and engineers. A good technically-oriented history is needed; simply getting good descriptions of the already-released NRO images would be useful. For example, in those photos I see two different vehicles being built. Why are they different? How much hardware was actually built in Huntington Beach? How far did they get and what happened to that hardware? How would robotic versions of MOL return film? Was there overlap with HEXAGON on that topic? So many questions remain.

For my model, I used the resin kit from Fantastic Plastic. Here are a couple of images.