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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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.”

“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.”

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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