Back before the Apollo program became NASA’s flagship (and ate up most of the budget), a competing project was aiming to put a spy spacecraft into orbit. Some declassified documents finally reveal what could have been.
Dubbed the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), the potential mission was publicly announced in 1963. But what wasn’t announced was a classified objective to place a crewed surveillance satellite in orbit, using Gemini B spacecraft and Titan IIIC rockets. Basically, the Air Force was pitching the project with a plan to conduct scientific experiments in space, with a side goal of also stationing some spies in orbit. Clever move. Or at least it would’ve been, if the project had been fully funded.
Here’s how the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) explained the project, as part of a massive release that included 825 previously classified documents, as well as 282 pics:
At the time, several military and contractor studies estimated that manned surveillance satellites could acquire photographic coverage of the Soviet Union with resolution better than the best system at the time (the first generation Gambit satellite). Additionally, the Air Force billed the MOL as a reconnaissance system that could more efficiently and quickly adjust coverage for crises and targets of opportunity than unmanned systems. The Air Force controlled development of the satellite, which was consistent with MOL’s unclassified mission, while the NRO ran development of the covert reconnaissance mission of the program, including the camera system and other subsystems.
A test launch was actually conducted in 1966, but after spending $1.56 billion, the government pulled the plug for other projects.
Check out a concept image of what the finished spacecraft would’ve looked like above, and some development shots/models below: