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 4 of 9)
“It was kind of a source of pride among ourselves,” Macleay laughs. “We used to joke that the only news announcement made when we launched would be something like ‘The Air Force launched two guys into space today from Vandenberg, and they’ll be back in 30 days.’”
In June 1966, five more pilots were named: Air Force Captains Karol Bobko, Gordon Fullerton, and Henry Hartsfield, Navy Lieutenant Robert Crippen, and Marine Captain Robert Overmyer. Fullerton was assigned to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio when the call came for applications for MOL and NASA. “You indicated which program you wanted, or both,” he recalls. “I checked both.”
A final foursome—all Air Force officers—was named the following June, having just graduated from test pilot school: Lieutenant Colonel Robert Herres and Majors Robert Lawrence, Donald Peterson, and James Abrahamson.
Training was conducted in two phases, the second of which dealt specifically with MOL. Some of the initial training was generic preparation to become Air Force astronauts, which meant helping to develop and test the odd hybrid vehicles that would eventually take them and their successors into space. MOL pilots flew flight simulators and aircraft rigged (or forced) to behave like spacecraft, including an NF-104A, which was equipped with a 6,000-pound-thrust rocket motor. They flew hair-raising approaches like the one Harvey Royer and Robert Lawrence were attempting when Lawrence died, and they flew high-energy zooms that took them close enough to the rim of the atmosphere that they had to wear pressure suits.
On the academic side, they studied rocket power, mechanics, and the biomedical aspects of spaceflight. And there was always that other, secret side of MOL to learn.
“We had a huge volume of work,” recalls Richard Lawyer. “I came from a combat-ready fighter unit and I felt my flying skills were going downhill. But in the second six months, you really felt like you were learning something.”
While the crews trained and studied, their orbital station began to evolve slowly from concept to actual hardware. The project borrowed whatever ideas, equipment, and manpower it could from NASA (Congress more than once directed the two agencies not to duplicate efforts) and invented when necessary. McDonnell, for example, had to figure out how to move the crew from the Gemini capsule to the lab module after MOL reached orbit. The engineers tried various ideas—spacewalks, an inflatable crew transfer tunnel connecting the Gemini and module hatches, rotating the capsule to stick its nose into the module, like a bee’s into a flower, and cutting a 26-inch-diameter circular hatch in the Gemini capsule’s heatshield that the crew could float through. The last idea was selected provisionally, pending flight tests to determine whether a hatch in the heatshield would stay sealed during reentry.
The Gemini-B required other changes form the NASA version, which had first carried astronauts into orbit in March 1965. Retro-rockets and other equipment stuffed into a bay behind the shield were modified to accommodate the transfer hatch and MOL’s higher orbit. The capsule also had to be capable of restarting after its month-long sleep at the tip of the lab module.