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 3 of 9)
The primary experiments proposed for MOL appear to corroborate its reconnaissance mission. At the top of the list were the use of large optics in space, tracking of targets on and off Earth, electromagnetic intelligence surveys, multi-spectral photography, and post-strike target assessment. MOL would carry the six-foot-diameter KH-10 spy camera (code name Dorian), which could resolve features as small as a softball. In fact, the MOL mission profile bore a powerful resemblance to that of its Russian counterpart, the Salyut military space station, which also was equipped for surveillance and which first flew in 1974.
The astronauts would also explore the assembly of large structures—for example, the linking of several MOLs into an orbiting complex that eventually would have looked rather like the Russian Mir. They would learn to maintain and repair their craft, do biomedical experiments, and conduct spacewalks with a backpack maneuvering unit (which eventually flew on NASA’s Skylab space station in the 1970s).
But today, a polar-orbiting MOL sounds less like a Skylab-type undertaking than the first military outpost in space, a U-2 no Soviet missile could reach, and perhaps something more. That may explain why, 30 years on, those who worked on the project still won’t say much about its mission. Lachlan Macleay, who was among the first group of MOL pilots chose in 1965, says only: “As far as I’m concerned, nothing has been declassified at all. We spent a lot of time in training, let me put it that way.”
President Lyndon Johnson gave MOL an official go-ahead in August 1965. Douglas Aircraft would build the laboratory module and McDonnell Aircraft the modified space capsule called Gemini-B. General Electric would manage the onboard experiments. Launches would be from both Cape Kennedy in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, which would allow the lab to reach high enough latitudes to fly over the Soviet Union. The first unmanned shot was scheduled for 1968, with the first crew to follow later that year. Within hours of the White House announcement that MOL would go ahead, a dusk of secrecy settled upon the project, and from that point on the public would see only its innocuous exterior.
MOL’s advocates in the Air Force must have felt relieved. At last they could begin thinking in terms of hardware and flight testing. And they could begin sorting through the best of the best, looking for space station crews. The first MOL pilots—the title they proudly adopted to differentiate themselves from NASA astronauts—were named in November 1965: Air Force Majors Albert Crews and Michael Adams (who would leave MOL in July 1967 to fly the X-15); Air Force Captains Richard Lawyer, Lachlan Macleay, Gregory Neubeck, and James Taylor; and Navy Lieutenants John Finley and Richard Truly.
Truly, who at the time was enrolled in test pilot school at Edwards, recalls that Chuck Yeager, then head of the school, and his deputy handpicked the MOL crew. “They never even asked me,” he says. It was nearly a year between the time the eight were selected and the day their names were made public. The announcement came on Truly’s 28th birthday.
The first MOL-men were members of the same fraternity that produced NASA’s early astronauts. “We all knew each other,” says Macleay, a former U-2 pilot who had twice been rejected by the space agency for being, at six foot two, too tall. Once selected, the MOL pilots flew the same kinds of simulators that their civilian counterparts flew, endured the same jungle survival courses, and ran into each other during the same frequent trips to McDonnell’s Gemini plant in St. Louis.
If any rivalry existed between the two groups, it was defused by the fact that their missions did not overlap. But the contrast between the programs didn’t escape the MOL pilots. NASA, recalls Macleay, “had really neat simulators—I mean, even their offices were nice. They were really kind of first class.” And while the astronauts were driving Corvettes and appearing on the cover of Life, “we were just low-key. Hardly anybody knew we even existed.” The original MOL group, with perhaps the slightest edge of mockery, dubbed themselves “The Magnificent Eight.”