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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Pondering the curious case of MOL 30 years later, one wonders whether the cause of death lay in the idea itself or in the peculiar politics of time.  “I think MOL didn’t fly because you could do the job cheaper with unmanned systems,” observes Don Peterson.  When cameras more advanced that the KH-10 finally flew, they were on satellites, not a space station with two people on board.

But what if MOL had succeeded?

“Frankly,” Abrahamson observes, “as a mission it was the single most challenging mixture of taking human beings’ unique powers and combining that with the computational capability and machines to make the best of both.  It was a challenging experiment in that context.  I thought it was absolutely inspirational.”  But not even he, who still says he would have traded his general’s stars for a crack at spacefaring, thinks MOL would have endured.

Bob Herres echoes that sentiment, as do some of the other MOL pilots.  Even if the station had reached orbit, he says, “I think we would have been canceled eventually.  If we’d answered all the questions—and we could have, maybe—then it could have been different.”  But he doesn’t believe the Air Force would have been able to hold that high ground, given the competition for money.

A final irony: All the MOL pilots selected as NASA astronauts finally flew on the space shuttle and returned to Earth in that fast, steep dive the 17 helped pioneer all those years ago at Edwards.  Had Robert Lawrence survived, he would have been one of them.

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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