MOL was born in a Cold War environment in which it was difficult to learn what the United States' adversaries were up to, Outzen said.
Patricia Cameresi, chief of the NRO's Information Review and Release Group, said the declassification of more than 20,000 pages of MOL documents was no easy task.
"It took over a year to get all the stakeholders involved ... to get them to agree to declassification of additional material and then to do the actual line-by-line review," Cameresi said.
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Behind the Iron Curtain
Former MOL astronauts taking part in the Oct. 22 event included James Abrahamson, Karol Bobko, Albert Crews, Bob Crippen and Richard Truly. Michael Yarymovych, who served as technical director of the U.S. Air Force MOL effort, also participated.
"We were doing something that was exciting and important," Yarymovych said. "We're going to also do something very important for national security. We are going to go look behind the Iron Curtain ... defend the nation while doing the exciting things of manned spaceflight."
After the termination of MOL, Truly, Crippen and Bobko became NASA astronauts, with Truly eventually ascending to NASA administrator status. Abrahamson led NASA's space shuttle program in the early 1980s, then later headed President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed the "Star Wars" program.
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For the MOL astronauts, the Wright-Patterson museum event was a trip down memory lane.
"It got canceled on June 10, 1969, a date that will live in my memory for a long time, which was one of the low points in my life," Crippen said.
Truly said MOL "was not a trivial thing that we were working on." He thought the program had solved some complex problems before "black Tuesday," when delays, cost overruns and other factors brought the program to an end.
MOL, which would have zipped around Earth in a polar orbit, pioneered complex human interaction with an automated film camera system, Truly said. "It would have made it far better than it could be done strictly as an automated system," he said.
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Humans in the loop
In the view of Abrahamson, who was also assigned the job of building a training simulator for utilizing the MOL camera system, putting humans in the loop was an added benefit.
The MOL film camera was going to be so precise, Abrahamson said, that it could have photographed Soviet airfields or snagged imagery of aircraft flight tests and the testing of specialized munitions.
But the field of view through the camera would have been akin to "looking down a soda straw," making human judgment important, Abrahamson said. The astronauts "were supposed to use judgment and training ... and to say, ‘Look here, not here; don't waste a pass here,'" he added.
In the end, the death of MOL provided Abrahamson a lesson he has applied to other programs. "If you can just get an empty can up there ... do it. Because then, you can build on it," he said.
The strategy with the Congress, "not the technical challenge," was the biggest risk, Abrahamson said.
According to Outzen, the reconnaissance historian, "There is often a misplaced assumption that a canceled program has no important legacy. This should not be said of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program."
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The MOL program should be recognized "for its rich legacy in both civilian and national reconnaissance space histories," Outzen concluded.
To begin your own digging into the 20,681 pages of released MOL documents, pictures and other resources, go to http://www.nro.gov/foia/declass/MOL.html.
Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is former director of research for the National Commission on Space and is co-author of Buzz Aldrin's 2013 book, "Mission to Mars – My Vision for Space Exploration," published by National Geographic with a new updated paperback version released in May 2015.
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