A Sudden Loss of Altitude
Meet the MOL-men. Prepared to make space history, these military pilots instead became a footnote to it.
- By Carl Posey
- Air & Space magazine, July 1998
(Page 2 of 9)
The Air Force already had rocketplanes, most notably the X-15, which took pilots to the brink of space. By 1963 Joe Walker had flown an S-15 to an altitude of 67 miles, a record for a winged vehicle that stood until the space shuttle Columbia broke it 18 years later.
The next step was to have been a piloted delta-wing craft that could ride into orbit on a Titan booster, maneuver and rendezvous in space, and glide back to Earth much as the shuttle does today. It was seen as an all-purpose spaceship—freighter, scout, fighter, nuclear bomber. With this craft, the Air Force would have an offensive capability in orbit.
Someone, ignoring the Fates, called it Dyna-Soar (from “dynamic soaring”) and thus doomed it to extinction. Even with an appetite for delays and design changes, Dyna-Soar might have survived the realities of engineering development. But it had almost no chance of surviving the Department of Defense, whose stern new headmaster was scrutinizing all the upperclassmen’s privileges. A vessel such as Dyna-Soar, whose strong suit was exploring operational terra incognita, was ill-equipped to parry questions of cost and performance asked by Robert McNamara’s Pentagon.
The end, when it came on December 10, 1963, took curious form. Having found the billion-dollar space glider wanting in the cost/benefit equation, McNamara canceled Dyna-Soar. But, after flunking one bad boy, the headmaster beamed with favor on another. He authorized the Air Force to take a closer look at another of its ideas, a stripped-down space station called the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. There was a catch, though: MOL would fly only if the generals could first define and justify a military mission in space that couldn’t be done by NASA.
Both the civilian space agency and the defense department had already begun playing with ideas for Earth-orbiting outposts and had signed an agreement only a few months earlier promising that any work on a national space station would be coordinated “to the greatest extent possible.” But at the time, Americans had logged only 54 hours in space, and neither the Air Force nor anyone else had a clear idea of what humans could and couldn’t do up there.
Still, if the Air Force wanted a space program, MOL was now the only game in town. So the service began to pull together a project. A few basics had already been established: The station would consist of a modified Gemini capsule attached to a cylindrical model 10 feet in diameter and 42 feet long. About half of this volume would be a pressurized working environment for the two-man crew. Another unpressurized section would contain life support equipment, plus a restartable rocket engine for orbital adjustments.
A Titan III would launch the station whole into a 150-mile-high orbit. Once aloft, the two astronauts would leave the Gemini, which rested in the forward end of the lab module like a stopper in an aluminum decanter, and move into their workplace. After a week or two—the maximum duration of a MOL mission was to be about 30 days—the crew would return to the Gemini capsule, separate from the lab module, and orient their little craft, heatshield forward, for reentry, a parachute descent, and recovery at sea. The station was not designed for permanence: Once abandoned, it would be deorbited to burn up in the atmosphere, and a new one would be launched for the next mission.
The Air Force called the station a laboratory, but the work inside was hardly to be pure science. The flights were billed from the beginning as what a Time magazine article called “military patrols—watching and photographing activity behind the Iron Curtain, inspecting suspicious satellites and destroying them if desirable. Patrols might carry nuclear weapons for use against the ground or other spacecraft. Some optimists believe that they might even detect hostile nuclear submarines below the surface of the ocean.”