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NOVA: AstroSpies

Airs Sunday, October 10, 2010 at 3 p.m. on KPBS TV

Pictured (l-r): Al Crews, Richard Truly, Richard E. Lawyer, James M. Taylor, ...

Credit: Courtesy of NARA

Above: Pictured (l-r): Al Crews, Richard Truly, Richard E. Lawyer, James M. Taylor, Francis G. Neubeck, Michal J. Adams, Lachlan Macleay and John L. Finley. After being selected for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program, MOL's first crew prepares for their intensive training program.

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.

Spy Photos

A surveillance-image specialist examines photos of Iraq, North Korea, and other political hotspots. View photos

Coproduced 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.

The Race Today

In this interview, historian Asif Siddiqi discusses the space programs of China, India, and other new players, and their impact.

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.

Not to be outwitted, the Soviets guessed the clandestine purpose of MOL and designed a similar manned spy station called Almaz. They launched three versions of Almaz in the 1970s. For this program, NOVA was given exclusive access to a fully complete back-up of Almaz in a restricted Russian space facility, where a cosmonaut demonstrates the reconnaissance systems.

With a cannon designed to destroy hostile satellites—or attack American astrospies—Almaz may have been the only manned spacecraft ever equipped for space war. And when the cannon was test-fired, it marked the first shot on a possible battlefield of the future. The weapon was possibly a response to one of the top-secret experiments planned for the MOL: capturing or destroying Russian satellites.

Although MOL was canceled before it ever got off the ground and MOL astronauts were virtually unknown, many went on to successful careers in government and business. A number flew aboard the space shuttle, including Robert Crippen, who piloted the first shuttle mission. Richard Truly, another MOL veteran and shuttle astronaut, went on to become Administrator of NASA. Robert Herres served as the first Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And James Abrahamson headed President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as the "Star Wars" antimissile system.

Watch the full episode of "NOVA: AstroSpies"

"NOVA: AstroSpies" probes the untold story of the elite corps of clandestine astronauts who were never told of the true purpose of their training program.

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