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Although MOL borrowed ideas and hardware (including a modified Gemini space capsule) from NASA, its reconnaissance mission was strictly classified. (National Museum of the USAF)

A Sudden Loss of Altitude

Meet the MOL-men. Prepared to make space history, these military pilots instead became a footnote to it.

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The moment, when it finally arrived, was bittersweet—bitter for having taken three decades to complete the journey of an afternoon, sweet to have a broken circle closed at last.  December 8, 1997, marked the 30th anniversary of a crash at California’s Edwards Air Force Base in which 32-year-old Major Robert H. Lawrence Jr. was killed.  Most accounts refer to the crash as a training accident.  In the same spirit, one would call an extreme skier’s fatal hundred-foot plunge a spill.

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On that day in 1967, Lawrence occupied the rear seat of an F-104D Starfighter, with Major Harvey Royer, operations chief at the Aerospace Research Pilot School, in front as pilot in command.  The two took off into the pounding clarity of the desert afternoon, climbed to 25,000 feet, and began shooting approaches meant to simulate the return of a spaceplane from orbit.  The profile called for a 25-degree dive (the average airliner’s glide slop is inclined about three degrees) and an airspeed of 330 mph, with thrust at idle power and landing gear, flaps, and speed brakes all fully extended.  The idea was to land a fast-moving machine from which the will to fly had been largely removed.

During one approach, according to the official Air Force summary, “the aircraft contacted the runway left of centerline, approximately 2,200 feet from the approach end.  Both main gears collapsed on the runway on first contact, and the canopy shattered.  The fuselage dragged on the runway for 214 feet before the aircraft again became airborne.  It subsequently touched down at the 4,000 foot mark, veered to the left and departed the runway at the 4,235 foot mark.”  Its underside blazing from the first impact, the F-104 veered off the runway and began to come apart.  Both pilots ejected.  Royer, badly injured, survived.  Lawrence got out, but his parachute failed to deploy fully.

The two men were preparing for a new era in which pilots—military pilots—would take the high ground of space.  Lawrence already was among a small cadre of exceptional fighter pilots training to be the first Air Force astronauts.  If things had gone according to plan, they would have lived and worked aboard the space station well before any NASA astronaut or Russian cosmonaut set foot inside a Skylab or Salyut.

But Lawrence lost his opportunity to soar beyond the atmosphere—and to be the first African American to go there—that terrible afternoon at Edwards.  Thirty years later to the day, the Florida-based Astronauts Memorial Foundation settled a long-running dispute over who exactly should be considered an astronaut and engraved his name on a commemorative mirror bearing the names of fallen space travelers.

The Air Force, though, has never had its own broken circle closed.  Its space station, called the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, was suddenly and without much argument canceled in June 1969, without ever getting the chance to prove its utility.  The 1960s presumption that by the end of the century the Air Force would have become a space force quickly evaporated, and today, even advocates of an extraterrestrial military presence can only just recall the time when the question was not whether, but how soon.

When the 1960s began, it looked as if wars would have to be fought on every front from seabed to Earth orbit.  The cold war had begun to burn hot in African and Asia, and a good part of the developing world was dividing along ideological lines.  Francis Gary Powers, his U-2 spyplane brought down by a missile in May 1960, was doing 10 years in a Russian prison.  By the time he was traded for a Soviet spy in 1962, his erstwhile hosts were thinking about a 75-ton manned space platform that could carry nuclear weapons into low Earth orbit—Battlestar Khrushchev.  Indeed, back then it looked as if space might go to the Soviets.

Not to be outgunned, the U.S. Air Force sketched out a 10-year plan in 1961 that assumed battle lines would extend into Earth orbit.  As the obvious gatekeeper to the new theater of operations, the Air Force proposed putting a continuous military force into space in the form of piloted craft, manned surveillance platforms, and space stations.  It would cost tens of billions of 1960s-vintage dollars, but it might help prevent that other reasonable expectation of the epoch: thermonuclear war.

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.

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