A Sudden Loss of Altitude

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

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)
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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.”

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.

About Carl A. Posey

Novelist and award-winning science writer Carl A. Posey was the author of seven published novels, a number of non-fiction books, and dozens of magazine articles. He was a licensed pilot and an Air & Space magazine contributor for more than 30 years, beginning with its second issue in 1986. Posey died on February 9, 2018.

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