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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As expensive as the Apollo fire proved to MOL, it might not have been lethal over the long pull of development.  A greater hazard resulted from a shift in the political climate.  Instead of Battlestar Khrushchev, along came the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, an international agreement forbidding the orbiting of weapons of mass destruction and reserving space for largely peaceful purposes.  Suddenly, when it came to human activities in orbit, “military” was a dirty word.

Competitors were everywhere.  NASA had begun more serious work on an Apollo-derived space station as an encore to the moon landings.  The Air Force had begun a clandestine effort that would evolve into the secret National Reconnaissance Office.  The Discoverer and Corona satellites were already returning spy photos, and the CIA had a monster satellite called Hexagon—later, Big Bird—on the drawing board as an alternative to MOL.  Big Bird would be as big and heavy as the Air Force system and could also carry a spy camera, but it would be man-free.  The idea of losing a spacecraft without losing life had a powerful appeal.

The MOL-men, it seemed, had only been backups.  “Not it’s obvious to me why we were selected,” says Al Crews, a member of the first group who had transferred from Dyna-Soar.  “We were told we were going to be the military space program,” which meant they would be conducting experiments in orbit.  “When we were selected, though, they told us we were really the manned system to operate the recon systems.  If [robots] couldn’t do it, they’d send us.”

Mainly, there was Vietnam.  What had been a minor distraction in 1963 had become a full-blown war by 1967, a conflict that ran on life, materiel, money—and fighter pilots, for whom it was a powerful magnet.  The MOL astronauts felt the tug, while Pentagon and White House accountants started looking for programs they could cut to help finance the war.  MOL was like a rose tree planted in the jungle—every living creature for miles around wanted a bite out of it.

By now, most of the pilots in the first two groups were migrating to Los Angeles and other points, following their assigned specialties—Fullerton, “the booster guy,” to Martin Marietta in Denver, Lawyer and Macleay working on the pressure suit, Abrahamson on simulators.  Everyone was detailed to some niche of MOL development.  The newcomers in the third group worked on engineering evaluation, helping the engineers test different designs—“which way switches should move, stuff like that,” as Herres puts it.  “We heard stuff, but it was far away.”

The “stuff” had to do with MOL’s growing money troubles, some of which were caused by delays in developing the Titan.  “Always, when you start a program,” Don Peterson says, “there comes a point in time, the second or third years of the program, where there’s a hump” that has to be surmounted.  On MOL, he says, “the launch date was always three years away.  It never really got closer.”  The first manned flight slipped to 1969-1970, then to 1971.  Meanwhile, the $1.5 billion estimated cost of the project rose to $3 billion.

“There was still a lot of excitement” about going into space, explains Fullerton, “but the preponderance of publicity was NASA’s.  MOL, due to classification, couldn’t argue very hard [for its existence].  We never had the sense of completeness” that Apollo had.

Jack Finley, one of the Navy pilots selected in the first MOL group, decided to bail out.  “There was a war going on, and all my friends were out there doing another job,” he says.  “My Navy buddies, except Dick Truly, were doing their thing in the war.  I was trained to try and lead people in combat.”  Finley left he program in 1968, and within a year or so he was flying missions over Vietnam.

By early 1969, however, the MOL community began to feel more upbeat.  The crews had begun flying parabolic zero-gravity simulation flights in KC-135 rigged with a mockup of the transfer tunnel.  “We started seeing things we could touch,” recalls Henry Hartsfield, a member of the second group.  “The pad was 90 percent completed.  We were contemplating the next spring moving up to Vandenberg.”

The project also seemed to have a steady financial heartbeat—the last Johnson administration budget contained $576 million for MOL.  The new Nixon administration was favorably disposed toward a military presence in space, and the coming Air Force secretary called MOL “important, even urgent.”  Even though the first manned launch had slipped again, this time to 1972, it wouldn’t be long before the first MOL crews would be named and flight training would begin.  “We all felt pretty good up to that point,” recalls Al Crews.

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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