Space Spies Revealed in New Documentary

The secret history of spies in space is about be revealed.

The new documentary "Astrospies" will delve into the U.S. Air Force's Cold War-era space reconnaissance program and its Soviet Union counterpart during a Tuesday edition of the series NOVA on the Public Broadcasting System.

"We used to have a joke in the program," said former astronaut Richard Truly in a statement. "That, one day, there was going to be a little article back on page 50 of a newspaper that said, "an unidentified spacecraft launched from an unidentified launch pad with unidentified astronauts to do an unidentified mission."

Truly was one of the first U.S. military astronauts selected for the USAF's Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) program in 1965. He later flew NASA shuttle missions in the 1980s and ultimately served as the agency's top administrator between 1989 and 1992. But during the MOL program, his astronaut status and that of 16 other military spaceflyers were classified as secret.

"That's the way it was," Truly said.

Under the MOL program, two astronauts would launch atop a Titan 3 rocket in a spacecraft similar to NASA's Gemini capsules, then conduct reconnaissance missions from orbit using ultra high-resolution telescopes. The USAF scrapped the top secret program in 1969, but not before the then-Soviet Union devised its own space-based spy platform: Almaz.

Tucked within the Soviet's multiple Salyut space station program, Almaz arose in the 1970s and was reported to include a cannon weapons system for use in space.

The military spaceflyers even had their own special spacesuits. NASA discovered the blue space garments by accident in 2005 after cracking open a long-sealed room at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Written by investigative journalist James Bamford and directed by C. Scott Willis, "Astrospies" debuts tonight to rather fortuitous timing in the realm of space reconnaissance. The documentary chronicles the rise of the manned space espionage vehicles in the U.S. and Soviet Union, as well as their downfall from robust unmanned spy satellites.

Earlier today, space officials in Russia and China challenged the U.S. by presenting proposal to ban future weapons in space. The proposal comes just over one year after China tested an anti-satellite weapon that destroyed one of the nation's older satellites.

Meanwhile, U.S. efforts at space-based reconnaissance have been in the spotlight of late due to a defunct spy satellite expected to reenter the Earth's atmosphere in coming weeks.

"NOVA: Astrospies" will air Tuesday, Feb. 12 at 8 p.m. ET/PT (check local listings). Click here for MOL program profiles and more program information.

Tariq Malik Editor-in-chief

Tariq is the editor-in-chief of Live Science's sister site He joined the team in 2001 as a staff writer, and later editor, focusing on human spaceflight, exploration and space science. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times, covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University.