The Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) was the U.S. Air Force’s most ambitious spaceflight program in the mid- to late- 1960s. It came along when the United States was just finding its way in a perceived space race with the Soviet Union, and offered the prospect of a military presence in orbit and a new surveillance capability.
Following on the heels of a project called Dyna Soar that many believe should not have been cancelled, MOL was an effort to enable up to four Air Force crewmembers to operate in orbit for extended periods in a shirtsleeve environment. Sold publicly as a scientific research project, it was secretly expected to open up new reconnaissance capabilities to enable Americans to look down at Soviet military activity.
“There was a general feeling that it would grow into an operational system,” said space historian and author Curtis Peebles in a telephone interview.
Pentagon scientists who designed the MOL believed they had a clear and detailed vision. A pressurized laboratory module a little smaller than a Volkswagen bus would be attached to a modified Gemini capsule and boosted into low Earth orbit by a Titan III-M rocket.
Astronauts would remain in the capsule until reaching orbit and then transfer to the laboratory. Upon completion of their scheduled period circling the Earth, they would climb back into the capsule, re-enter the atmosphere, and come home.
Although the eventual goal was an orbital station that would carry four astronauts at a time, all of the actual training and preparation was aimed toward two-man missions. The MOL effort borrowed heavily from NASA’s Gemini program and was initially named Blue Gemini or Gemini-B.
The MOL project had been brewing in secret for several years when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara revealed it in the same Dec. 10, 1963 press conference in which he announced cancellation of Dyna Soar.
On Feb. 1, 1964, the Air Force Space Command announced the creation of a special MOL management office, headed by Col. Richard Jacobson. The first MOL astronauts were selected the following year. One was a Navy lieutenant, Richard H. Truly, who had recently graduated from the Air Force’s test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
“I was a kid,” said Truly in a telephone interview. “I was in my twenties. A lot of my friends were going to NASA. I was excited to be part of this military program. I wanted to help make this program work.”
Ultimately, 14 astronauts were chosen in three cohorts for the MOL program. Although the eventual goal was an orbital station that would carry four astronauts at a time, all of the actual training and preparation was aimed toward two-man missions. The MOL effort borrowed heavily from NASA’s Gemini program and was initially named Blue Gemini or Gemini-B. Although many of the MOL astronauts were from other service branches, most or all were alumni of the Air Force test pilot school, which at the time was headed by Col. (later, Brig. Gen.) Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager.
MOL’s military astronauts, it was expected, would spend up to four weeks in orbit. After that, they would return to the capsule, which would separate from the laboratory and return to Earth. Placing the launch facility at Vandenberg would permit launch into polar orbit for overflight of the Soviet Union. Use of a capsule derived from the existing Gemini program would keep costs low, thus making the project palatable to Congress.
Truly described the space vehicle as a Gemini capsule with a circular hatch built into the heat shield that would be used as a doorway between the craft and the orbiting laboratory – both of which would be boosted into orbit together. The Titan III-M was a derivative of a familiar missile tailored for the MOL program.
President Lyndon B. Johnson was enamored of the MOL project and talked it up among his Capitol Hill friends. Construction on the SLC-6 launch complex at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., began in March 1966. As it would turn out, many years would elapse before SLC-6 made its first launch, and it would not be of an MOL.
Although the United States was committed to keeping weapons out of space – NASA had been created in 1958 to emphasize peaceful purposes – there was no taboo on military research or even military reconnaissance. MOL’s military astronauts, it was expected, would spend up to four weeks in orbit. After that, they would return to the capsule, which would separate from the laboratory and return to Earth. Placing the launch facility at Vandenberg would permit launch into polar orbit for overflight of the Soviet Union. Use of a capsule derived from the existing Gemini program would keep costs low, thus making the project palatable to Congress.
The U.S. build-up in Vietnam took priority for defense funding. NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs used up much of the funding that could have gone to MOL. According to historian Peebles, astronaut Gordon Fullerton, a member of the second MOL cohort, began joking to friends that MOL personnel held a “Three years until launch” party – every year.
Critics accuse MOL of doing what its predecessor Dyna Soar did not – inspiring a vast bureaucracy that soaked up budget dollars out of proportion to the scientific progress being made. The savings expected from using a derivative of the Gemini capsule did not materialize. MOL soon showed observers that it was going to soak up a huge expenditure of corporate funds, human resources, intellectual capital, and effort.
When Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird announced cancellation of MOL in 1969, cost was a major factor, but advocates wondered if the program was killed in part because it was too closely identified with Johnson now that Richard M. Nixon was president. The Air Force had spent about $300 million on MOL, with about $1 billion more scheduled, and had initially scheduled the first launch for that year. Had the intended schedule been followed, a full, four-week mission would have been launched on Feb. 1, 1972, with astronauts James M. Taylor and Albert H. Crews.
Another likely reason for cancellation was the progress being made with unmanned reconnaissance satellites. The KH-10 (Dorian) system intended for the MOL would not have been much of an improvement over the KH-9 (Hexagon/Big Bird) unmanned satellite, which returned photographic film in capsules that Air Force aircraft snatched out of the sky as they dropped toward Earth. By the time MOL was cancelled, the KH-9 was close to its first operational mission (which came in 1971) and the KH-11 (Kennan/Keyhole), which would transmit imagery to Earth in near real-time, was under development (with its first flight in 1976).
Yet another factor in MOL’s demise, of course, was the vast amount of attention and funding being heaped on NASA’S Apollo program, which put men on the moon on July 20, 1969. Ultimately, even Apollo was cut short before it completed the number of missions that were planned.
The Soviet space program’s Almaz project was similar to the MOL in intent and timing and, unlike MOL, was launched successfully, but the Soviets cancelled the project in the 1970s.
Retired Vice Adm. Richard Truly later became the first head of Navy Space Command, flew the space shuttle, and was NASA administrator from 1989 to 1992. He looks back fondly on his four years with the MOL program. Truly believes there was no technological impediment that would have kept MOL from journeying into orbit.
“I think we could have done it,” said Truly.