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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Shirley Herres remembers that she was putting up her hair on the morning of June 10, 1969, when her husband Robert suddenly appeared.  “I asked him what he was doing home,” she says, since the normal workday at Edwards usually went from dawn to late night.  “He said he was out of a job.”

Word had come down: The White House, with the budget office leading the assault, had just canceled the MOL project.

“The way the cancellation was passed to the people wasn’t very nice,” says Hartsfield, who was in Los Angeles at the time.  “Most of us heard it on the radio going to work.  I kept changing the station, hoping it would improve.  At Douglas it was like walking into a morgue.”

Fullerton heard the news upon landing a T-38 at Edwards.  Abrahamson was at Vandenberg.  Truly and Macleay were at GE’s plant in Pennsylvania when, Macleay remembers, “in walks the president of General Electric and his secretary, and she’s crying her eyes out, and he announces that the program’s been canceled.”

The cancellation surprised everyone, Air Force and contractor alike.  By some estimates it killed off 10,000 jobs.  But unlike the ashen, suddenly unemployed engineers at Douglas, the military pilots knew that the end of one program meant only that their careers would veer off in some new direction.  In the services, you learned to expect the unexpected.

All the MOL pilots were invited by NASA to come down to Houston to interview for the astronaut corps, but an unwritten rule quickly became apparent: Those over 35 years old need not apply.  Seven of the 14 surviving MOL astronauts—Truly, Crippen, Overmyer, Bobko, Fullerton, Hartsfield, and Peterson—made the cut.  “It was heartbreak for seven of us,” says Crews, “but it opened a larger door for the other seven when they got to go to NASA.”

“I was devastated,” recalls Jim Abrahamson, who’d turned 36 in May.  “I flew down to see [NASA astronaut office chief] Deke Slayton, tried to talk my was into the astronaut program.”  But Slayton wouldn’t budge, and with good reason.  He didn’t have enough flight opportunities for the astronauts already in his program, and he knew it would be a long time before even the younger MOL guys went into space.

Herres says he never knew about the 35-and-under business, but he wasn’t very interested anyway.  “They already had 57 astronauts,” he says.  “I would spend ten years waiting to fly.  I knew that this was the decision point for my career.  I went back to the Air Force to work at Edwards.”

“When the program was canceled,” Hartsfield says, “most of us volunteered to go to Vietnam.”  But because MOL had been classified, the pilots face a one-year restriction on duty and travel.  Three of the group chose to get an advanced degree instead.  “The day I was leaving L.A., I got a call,” Hartsfield recalls.  “‘Don’t leave yet, NASA wants you.’”  He went to school for a year, then over to the space agency.

Says Fullerton: “The offer seemed so unique you couldn’t pass it up.”

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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