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. In this program, NOVA delves into the untold story of this top-secret space race, which might easily have turned into a shooting war in orbit.
Co-produced by investigative journalist James Bamford, acclaimed best-selling author of The Puzzle Palace 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 given the cover name Manned Orbiting Laboratory. The public was informed only that the project involved placing military astronauts in space to conduct scientific research. But in reality, as the MOL pilots themselves tell NOVA, their actual mission was far different—although even they were kept in the dark at first.
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 footage broadcast for the first time, NOVA shows a mock-up of MOL's interior as well as astronauts training for different phases of the mission.