Manned Orbiting Laboratory Declassified: Inside a US Military Space Station

Meet the Manned Orbiting Laboratory


At the peak of the space race – when the Soviet Union was considered a threat, and the Beatles were a hot new band invading American music – the United States had a partially classified human space program. It was called the Manned Orbiting Laboratory.

First announced in December 1963, the program's public aim was to figure out the "military usefulness" of putting a human into space. Its real, classified aim was to put a crewed surveillance satellite into orbit to spy on the Soviet Union. The program never got into space.

The program was cancelled in June 1969 (the month before humans landed on the moon) due to budgetary concerns. In late 2015, the National Reconnaissance Office released hundreds of photos and documents about the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. Here are some of the best ones.

Up first: An early space station

An early space station


An undated artist's conception of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. The picture shows the station being powered by solar panels. A telescope juts out to the right of the station. The spacecraft at top is a version of the two-person Gemini spacecraft that NASA flew in Earth orbit between 1964 and 1966.

MOL operated for more than five years and spent $1.56 billion in 1969 dollars ($130 billion in 2016). According to the National Reconnaissance Office, the program was cancelled because of budgetary pressure from the Apollo program and the Vietnam War. There also was a political perception that MOL duplicated what NASA was doing with its human spaceflight program.

Up next: A 1960s Vision

A 1960s Vision


This early concept for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory shows one possible design of the military space station during its initial development.

Designers would eventually streamline the project to fit on a Titan rocket and be serviced by astronauts on Gemini space capsules.

Up next: A Closer Look at MOL

A Closer Look at MOL

by Karl Tate, Infographics artist

The U.S. military's Manned Orbiting Laboratory was planned in the 1960s but never realized. Here's a breakdown of what the military spy space station would have entailed. See how the Gemini-based manned spy satellite would have worked here.

Up next: Precise machining

Precise machining


This is an early scaled model of the MOL. According to an NRO statement, MOL's justification was that humans could get better pictures of the Soviet Union than satellite photographs of the day could provide.

MOL was a joint program between the Air Force and the NRO. The Air Force was responsible for developing the actual spacecraft, while the NRO created the camera system and other specified subsystems. The Air Force was particularly interested in the program because the humans could ostensibly adjust their mission and photographing faster than a robotic satellite.

Up next: Titan Test Flight

Titan Test Flight

U.S. Air Force/NRO

In November 1966, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory project hit a milestone with an unpiloted test flight using a Titan IIIC-9 rocket.

The mission launched on Nov. 3, 1966, from Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The rocket launched a mock-up of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory as well as a refurbished Gemini spacecraft as a Gemini B prototype.

Up next: The Gemini B capsule

The Gemini B capsule

U.S. Air Force

The go-to vehicle for missions to the Manned Orbiting Laboratory was a military version of NASA's Gemini spacecraft, called the Gemini B, seen here in an artist's depiction. The Gemini B would launch a crew with an MOL, allow access into the station via a connecting tunnel at the capsule's base and then return crews to Earth by separating from the MOL, seen here.

Up next: Inside Gemini B

Inside Gemini B


Like NASA's Gemini spacecraft, the Gemini B was a two-person capsule. This view of the interior through an entry hatch shows the tight squeeze astronauts would have to endure on MOL missions.

Up next: Gemini cockpit

Gemini cockpit


This is a version of the Gemini cockpit. Like NASA, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory planned to use a Gemini spacecraft to bring astronauts to space. The spacecraft was designed to be operated by two people, and was capable of working for up to approximately two weeks in Earth orbit if all systems were working correctly. [Gemini Program: Two-Man Prep for Moon Missions]

For NASA, Gemini ended up being a key – but underappreciated – program to help get astronauts to the moon in the Apollo program. It tested key parts of space living such as doing spacewalks and performing dockings, all of which were untested by NASA prior to Gemini taking place. In less than two years of human spaceflight, it accomplished all major objectives.

Up next: Spacesuit development

Spacesuit development


Spacesuits are an integral part of any spaceflight system, and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory was no different. Here, individuals perform motions during spacesuit testing. The MOL spacesuits would be the bright blue seen at right.

Up next:Astronaut Training

Astronaut Training

National Reconnaissance Office

This photo offers a crewmember's-eye-view of astronaut training for the U.S. military's Manned Orbiting Laboratory project in the 1960s.

Up next: Control center

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: