A NASA astronaut, left, sits beside a Manned Orbiting Laboratory astronaut, right, in the late 1960s. National Reconnaissance Office photo.
One day, in 2005, a pair of security officers were making the rounds at a retired launch site on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (now Space Force Station) in Florida, when they came across a door they didn’t have a key for. Other people might’ve just wiggled the handle and moved on without a second thought, but not NASA Special Agent Dann E. Oakland and his sidekick Henry Butler.
Oakland and Butler tracked down a master key, unlocked the door, and pushed it open, discovering what appeared to be just an average storage room. Cardboard boxes full of stuff were stacked from floor to ceiling. It was like a rocket launch site’s equivalent of a junk drawer. Interestingly, though, traces of rodent visitors and a lack of power indicated that no one had entered the room recently, perhaps in years.
With flashlights in hand, the men ventured forth into the unknown, exploring the contents of the long-forgotten but seemingly unremarkable closet space. Unremarkable, that is, until they pried open a pair of trunks. Neatly folded inside each trunk were pristine light blue spacesuits unlike any astronaut’s uniform either man had ever seen.
NASA Special Agent Dann E. Oakland holds up a Cold War–era spacesuit that he had recently uncovered at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in 2005. NASA photo.
Oakland and Butler promptly reported their discovery up the NASA chain of command, and soon an investigation was underway. One initial theory was that the suits were old training uniforms from either the end of the Gemini program or the early years of Apollo. But, as it turned out, that was not the case.
Eventually, the search for answers led NASA investigators to Hamilton Standard, the company that manufactured the onesies in question. Upon careful examination, the uniforms were determined to be MH-7 training suits specially designed for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, a short-lived, clandestine Cold War–era military program.
First unveiled to the public by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in December 1963, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, MOL for short, was a joint initiative by the US Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office. The program was billed as the Pentagon’s human spaceflight project, similar to NASA’s Apollo program, but behind closed doors, its primary focus was reconnaissance.
Unmanned test launch for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program on Nov. 3, 1966. National Reconnaissance Office photo.
The ultimate goal of the program was to use the MOL as a spying outpost. Using a modified Gemini capsule, the Air Force would deploy two-man crews to the in-orbit space station. Equipped with a high-res telescope and a high-tech imaging system called Dorian, the crew would spy on America’s adversaries from their little perch concealed in the heavens, snapping photos of people and locales within the Soviet Union and its ally countries. Then, after floating above Earth for a month, the pair would undock, return home, and tag in their replacements.
That’s the way things would have happened had the MOL ever made it into space. Despite completing a successful unmanned test launch and training 17 military officers as astronauts, the initiative was abandoned in 1969 because it was behind schedule and over budget. Plus, by that point, unmanned spy satellites were becoming a thing, effectively foreclosing the job market for human space spies.
The MOL program wasn’t a total waste of time and money, however. It was responsible for building Space Launch Complex 6 at Vandenberg Space Force Base, a facility that Space-X received approval to lease in April 2023. Additionally, seven of the program’s younger astronauts went on to join NASA’s spaceflight program. Among them were Robert Crippen, who in 1981 piloted STS-1, the first Space Shuttle mission, and also Richard H. Truly, who eventually became the head of NASA.
As for the light blue spacesuits, one was delivered to the Smithsonian Institution, where — according to official government paperwork — it should have been for decades. The other was delivered to NASA.
Jenna Biter is a staff writer at Coffee or Die Magazine. She has a master’s degree in national security and is a Russian language student. When she’s not writing, Jenna can be found reading classics, running, or learning new things, like the constellations in the night sky. Her husband is on active duty in the US military. Know a good story about national security or the military? Email Jenna.
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