The first space station was the Salyut 1, launched by the Soviet Union on April 19, 1971. The first U.S. station was Skylab, launched just over two years later. But those were almost upstaged by a secret station that never quite got off the ground. Newly declassified 20,681 pages of documents shed light on a the first space station that never was.
The Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) was publicly disclosed in 1963. Some limited details were disclosed, including the 17 military astronauts who were chosen to man it. President Johnson announced:
“At the suggestion of Vice President Humphrey and members of the Space Council, as well as Defense Secretary McNamara, I am today instructing the Department of Defense to immediately proceed with the development of a Manned Orbiting Laboratory.
This program will bring us new knowledge about what man is able to do in space. It will enable us to relate that ability to the defense of America. It will develop technology and equipment which will help advance manned and unmanned space flights. And it will make it possible to perform their new and rewarding experiments with that technology and equipment.”
From the Air Force release:
“The MOL program, which will consist of an orbiting pressurized cylinder approximately the size of a small house trailer, will increase the Defense Department effort to determine military usefulness of man in space…MOL will be designed so that astronauts can move about freely in it without a space suit and conduct observations and experiments the laboratory over a period of up to a month.”
What both the president and Air Force seemed to say was that the MOL would be an experimental project to learn about whether manned spaceflight had military uses. What wasn’t disclosed was that the lab was to be used as a spy camera, an electronic listening mechanism, a non-nuclear missile platform and even an enemy satellite capture device.
Known confidentially as the Dorian Program, and originally conceived under a different initiative in 1957, the program lasted for six years (1963-1969) and used $1.56B (nearly $12B in today’s money) during its life. Essentially, it was to be a Gemini capsule – used as the launch crew compartment and reentry vehicle – attached to 56.5 feet of “space station.” Unlike more recent stations that are modular and put together over many missions, it was a single use, single launch configuration, planned to be launched on a tailor-made Titan 3 rocket.
Ultimately, the Vietnam War and Apollo program competed against it for funds and won out. Unmanned spy satellites proved that they could perform the reconnaissance function at less cost. Though one test mission of the Titan 3C rocket and attached MOL station took place, the program was cancelled before any manned, operational missions took place. While it may seem like a colossal waste of money, it left its mark by laying some of the groundwork for Skylab and the International Space Station.