Millions of people remember the countdowns, launchings, splashdowns and parades as the United States raced the Soviet Union to the moon in the 1960s, but few know about the “shadow space race,” in which both superpowers ran parallel covert space programs to launch military astronauts on spying missions. New to DVD, the NOVA program Astrospies explores that rich, hidden history of otherworldly exploration.
Directed by C. Scott Willis, this 54-minute program expertly resets the scene of the Cold War in economic fashion, by detailing the new Soviet missile base east of the Arctic that would first inspire the 1964 creation of the top secret MOL (Manned Orbiting Laboratory) program. Figuring — domestically, at least — that the best way to “hide” the $1.5 billion program would be out in the open, President Lyndon Johnson announced it in a news conference, tabbing it a program of essential scientific experiment; selection quietly began as an offshoot of the Aerospace Research Pilot School run by Chuck Yeager, with even the military pilot students having no idea of the true agenda of their matriculation and endless testing. Several of the survivors of this elite corps of ex-military astronauts — including Albert Crews, Donald Peterson and C. Gordon Fullerton — tell their story here. While the Apollo astronauts enjoyed ticker-tape parades, these astrospies trained in total obscurity.
Astrospies is so interesting, however, because it takes the time to tell the other side of the story, as it were. Perusing the specs for the program, the Soviets knew what the United States was up to, and set out to actually built three manned, permanent and re-stockable spy stations. Vladimir Polyachenko and Anatoli Blagov, two of the heads of their Almaz (Russian for “diamond in the rough”) project, talk about Russian space facilities, and even demonstrate the high-powered spy cameras that were trained on American cities. With a cannon designed to destroy hostile satellites (or attack American astrospies), Almaz was probably the only manned spacecraft ever equipped for space war.
This is the sexy-scary historical intrigue factor that most recommends Astrospies — it’s like the outer space documentary companion piece to Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd. Yet there’s also some fascinating technological nuggets herein — particularly when it comes to the development of rudimentary motion-tracking systems. All in all, the primary source chats — and declassification of all this material, post-Cold War — make for a fascinating peek behind the historical curtain. Interviews with retired General Lawrence Skantze and authors Asif Siddiqi and James Bamford (the latter of whom takes a writing credit on this program, since it was inspired by his original investigative research) round out the streamlined program.
Housed in a regular Amray case, Astrospies comes presented in 16×9 anamorphic widescreen, with closed captions, video descriptions for the visually impaired and downloadable materials for educators. There are unfortunately no other supplemental features. For more information on the movie, click here. B (Movie) D (Disc)