October 11, 2010

Spies In Space


In the 1960's, there was a top secret US program to put spies in space.  These "astro-spies" were to live in a space station whose main purpose would be to take highly detailed photographs of the Soviet Union.  The government figured the best way to keep this program a secret was to hide it in plain sight and, in 1964, President Johnson announced the ambitious plans for a Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) in which astronauts would run "scientific experiments".  There was no mention of the massive camera the size of a Volkswagen that was the real reason for this whole operation.

I learned about all this last night on a rerun of a NOVA special called "Astro-Spies" on PBS.  The program began shortly after Gary Powers was shot out of the sky in his U-2 spy plane in 1960.  The Air Force realized that if they put their spy camera in space, no one could shoot it down.  The plan was so top secret that it was not revealed until the 1990's, when by chance someone found an old astronaut spacesuit with a name on it that was not on the official NASA list of astronauts.  

mol_patch.jpgWhile the US developed it's MOL program, Russia got wind of it and started their own spies in space plan, Almaz. While the MOL was cancelled in 1969 and never got off the ground, the Russian "lab" did make it into orbit with one crazy addition; it had a weapon attached to it to shoot other satellites or threats out of the sky.  The 23mm rapid fire cannon was fired once in a test but never at an actual target.