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Space Reconnaissance: The Manned Orbiting Laboratory


December 19, 2023


The Manned Orbiting Laboratory or MOL was designed in the 1960s as a joint project for the National Reconnaissance Office NRO. The purpose was to find a way to spy on America’s cold war adversaries, so the United States Government prioritized a large number of resources to research and engineering. During the Cold War, surveillance and inside information was key, thus inventing new vehicles of reconnaissance was how the United States maintained a competitive edge.

Parts of MOL’s mission remained classified until 2015. The MOL Program remained classified because of the impact it could have on international relations with the Soviet Union. The technology that developed from this mission was so advanced that it was kept classified beyond the usual 25 years. No one is sure what was developed in this program or why the United States maintained the classification for nearly 50 years.

On November 3, 1966, the MOL Program launched their first and only rocket to space in Cape Canaveral Florida. This was the Titan-IIIC. With dual liquid engines, and two solid rocket boosters, the Titan-IIIC could reach 1,174,500 pound thrust at launch. The Titan-IIIC was launched from Cape Canaveral a total of 36 times.

During one of these missions the Titan-IIIC was installed with what is known as the Gemini-B Capsule. Publicly this capsule was stated as a test of durability to ensure the safety of astronauts in space, however this capsule was used in the MOL for reconnaissance. The Gemini-B’s first mission was on January 19, 1965, on the Titan-II a predecessor to the Titan-IIC. This launch was unmanned and weighted to simulate two astronauts inside the capsule.

MOL’s plans came after and they made modifications to the Gemini, one was the enhanced heat shield and the other was the reworking of seats to give the capsule a hatch. These were done and it was tested on November 3, 1966. The Gemini-MOL is now housed safely in the Space Force Missile and Space Museum in Cape Canaveral.


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