Eye in the Sky: USAF's Manned Orbiting Laboratory
Updated: May 16
It was 1962 and the Space Race was in full gear. The United States had launched its first three manned orbital missions to catch up with the Soviet Union and plans for sending two men into space at the same time were underway. The Air Force, still wanting to write its own story in space, had cancelled their X-20 Dynamic Soarer program, a manned reconnaissance and satellite-interception bomber, for the new Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, or MOL.
Artist's rendition of MOL in orbit (National Reconnaissance Office)
MOL was a manned space station whose primary purpose was reconnaissance photography. It derived from the Manned Orbital Development System (MODS), which was the Air Force’s Space System Division’s idea to use NASA Gemini hardware for their own space missions. MODS established a program called Blue Gemini. Its purpose was to train Air Force astronauts by having them fly with NASA astronauts during Gemini-like missions. When MOL was announced, it replaced MODS and Blue Gemini.
Astronaut selection from MOL was very different from that of NASA’s. Unlike NASA astronaut candidates, those chosen for MOL were completely unaware of their evaluation. The only information they were given by their superiors was that the Air Force would be choosing astronauts for its new space program. The first selection occurred in 1965 and consisted of eight pilots who came to call themselves the Magnificent Eight (a nod to NASA’s first class of astronauts, the Mercury Seven). Two other groups would be selected in the following years- five more pilots in 1966 and four more in 1967. Of the seventeen men who planned to fly in space during this program, seven of them actually became astronauts. They'll be discussed in a bit. Two MOL pilots, Michael Adams and Robert Lawrence, died in the line of duty.
Fourteen of the seventeen MOL astronauts: (top L-R) Herres, Hartsfield, Overmyer, Fullerton, Crippen, Peterson, Bobko, Abrahamson (bottom L-R) Finley, Lawyer, Taylor, Crews, Neubeck, Truly. Adams and Lawrence are not pictured and possibly deceased. Macleay is not pictured either. (NRO)
"We did have a joke in the program that one day, there was gonna be a little article back on page fifty of the newspaper that said, 'An unidentified spacecraft launched from an unidentified launch pad with unidentified astronauts to do an unidentified mission.' That's the way it was." -Dick Truly
When President Lyndon B. Johnson first announced MOL to the public in 1964, he claimed it was primarily for science experiments and to “prove the utility of man in space for military missions.” While NASA Gemini missions did perform some experiments, its primary goal was preparation for manned lunar flights. It was important to hide the actual purpose of MOL for two reasons: First, public support. People were already protesting the Vietnam War and if it was discovered the military was planning on sending spies into space, the public might turn on the government and even become suspicious of NASA operations. Second, if the Soviet Union was aware their enemy would be spying on them from space, what was to stop them from doing the same. The USSR actually did have their own military space station named Almaz in the 1970's. In fact, the secrecy of MOL was so extreme that each class of astronauts participated in exactly one press conference before training began and disappeared into the darkness.
The spacecraft itself consisted of two parts— a capsule and a space station. The capsule was a modified version of NASA’s Gemini capsule called Gemini B. Although it looked similar to NASA’s many of the systems were changed for its missions. For example, the systems were upgraded for thirty days of orbital storage since the longest NASA flight would be only fourteen days. Another critical change to the Gemini was its heat shield. In order for astronauts to exit the capsule and enter the space station attached to it (and vice versa), they would have to crawl through a hatch. But in order to do this, a hole needed to be cut in the bottom of the spacecraft where the heat shield is located. If the hatch/heat shield was not in place during reentry, the crew would burn up and perish. The OPS 0855, also designated OV4-3, was the boilerplate used to test this method. It was attached to NASA’s old unmanned Gemini 2 spacecraft, which had already flown in space, as well as a MOL mockup built from a Titan II rocket propellant tank. To distinguish it from other Gemini spacecraft, the name “US Air Force” was painted on its side. The Gemini 2 and OPS 0855 would together be a prototype of the Gemini B. It launched on November 3, 1966, from Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 40 on a Titan IIIC-9 rocket on a thirty-three minute suborbital flight. Fortunately for the program, the test flight was a success and the capsule survived reentry, therefore becoming the first capsule to fly in space twice. Despite its success, it was the only flight of the MOL program. The Gemini B capsule is now on display at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Museum in Florida.
The twice-flown Gemini B at the Air Force Space & Missile Museum (image credit: Aeryn A.)
Another important aspect of MOL was the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit, or AMU. It was a backpack worn during an EVA that used two hand controllers for steering and propulsion. It was to be tested on Gemini 9 but astronaut Gene Cernan had difficulty getting to it (due to its size, it was not stowed in the spacecraft but rather at the back of the spacecraft on the outside). Another attempt was to be made on Gemini 12 and flown untethered, but was scrubbed two months before launch. Some people, however, thought the Air Force had plans in mind other than repairs on the outside of the spacecraft. NASA astronaut Deke Slayton stated in his autobiography Deke!, "I guess they thought they might have the chance to inspect somebody else's satellites."
Astronaut Maneuvering Unit (NASA)
Since MOL was a military reconnaissance program, it needed an optical system. The first spy satellite was the KH-4 Corona, which launched in 1960. It and others like it were highly successful…when there was no cloud coverage. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) developed the KH-10 Dorian specifically for MOL. Unlike the KH-4 Corona and those like it, Dorian was not a satellite but rather a system installed within the space station for the astronauts to use. It was determined that astronauts were better at finding and capturing targets of interest than unmanned spy satellites. However, MOL was cancelled before any operational flights of Dorian took place. The KH-10 was succeeded by the infamous KH-11 Kennan, which is said to have had a 3-inch imaging resolution and could digitally send pictures back to Earth.
A comparison between the complete MOL space station and the Hexagon satellite
While the NRO gave MOL its KH-10 Dorian, it actually advocated for its KH-9 Hexagon satellite, also known as Big Bird. Between 1965 and 1969, MOL’s budget doubled from $1.5 billion to $3 billion, and the Department of Defense was not too sure if it could support it anymore. Manned flight is much much more expensive than unmanned flight and the necessities for manned flight, such as the basic food, water, and life support systems, were not required with traditional spy satellites. Furthermore, the NRO was certain its Hexagon was better than MOL ever could be, even without the intuition of man.
On June 10, 1969, a just under six years after its conception, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program was cancelled. NASA was a little more than a month away from landing men on the moon and MOL was still three years away from its first scheduled manned flight. Though it had support within Congress, its cost and risk were too high. CIA head Richard Helms did not support the program because he feared the death of a MOL astronaut might ground further launches and jeopardize the entire satellite reconnaissance program. Additionally, the Vietnam War was still going on and Congress was already making cuts to NASA’s budget. It was determined that unmanned spy satellites, such as the Hexagon, could do just as well or even better than MOL.
But what about the would-be astronauts? NASA accepted applications from those still with the MOL program who were interested in flying for them instead. Since the astronaut office was quite full, the agency decided to take only those who were under the age of thirty-five since it would be at least a decade before any of them made it into space. Seven were accepted and became NASA’s seventh class of astronauts, the MOL Seven. These men were Bo Bobko, Bob Crippen, Gordon Fullerton, Hank Hartsfield, Bob Overmyer, Donald Peterson, and Dick Truly. It would be twelve years before any of the MOL Seven flew in space, and the first to do so was Bob Crippen when he served as pilot of the first Space Shuttle Mission in 1981. Dick Truly flew as the pilot of the second Space Shuttle mission and even served as NASA Administrator from 1989 to 1992. Bo Bobko commanded the first flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis in 1985. The remaining eight MOL pilots all went on to have successful careers in the military or as NASA research pilots. MOL would be the Air Force’s final attempt at sending its own men into space.
NASA Astronaut Group 7: (L-R) Bo Bobko, Gordon Fullerton, Hank Hartsfield, Bob Crippen, Donald Peterson, Dick Truly, & Bob Overmyer (NASA)
MOL remained in the dark for forty years. Those who were part of it did not talk about it much. Little was publicly known about the program. In fact, at the time, there was not much evidence it even existed. In 2005 while inside the blockhouse of Launch Complex 5/6 on Cape Canaveral, the site of the first two manned American launches, NASA Special Agent Dann Oakland came across a locked room. The lock was so old it could only be unlocked by a master key. He and Delaware North security manager Henry Butler came across peculiar cases with ever more peculiar contents— two blue MH-7 training suits that turned out to be from MOL. They both had three-digit numbers, 007 and 008, on the torsos. 008 also had the name “Lawyer”. We know now that 008 is Richard Lawyer of the Magnificent Eight and legend has it 007 may have belonged to Dick Truly. Ten years later in July 2015, the NRO declassified more than 800 files and photos pertaining to the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program.
Digital rendition cutaway of MOL (astronautix.com)
The Manned Orbiting Laboratory was a secret Air Force program that called for a manned military reconnaissance space station during the height of the Cold War. It influenced the development of a Soviet counterpart but was ultimately cancelled due to budget cuts faced by the entire space program. Would its continuation into the 1970s as an active station been an effective anti-Soviet strategy for the Air Force or would it have put more lives in danger? Let me know your thoughts in the comments and please like and share this post. Thanks for reading!
Bamford, James. “Astrospies.” NOVA, season 35, episode 4, PBS, 2008.
David, Leonard. “Declassified: US Military's Secret Cold War Space Project Revealed.” Space.com, Space, 30 Dec. 2015, www.space.com/31470-manned-orbiting-laboratory-military-space-station.html.
White, Rowland. Into the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the Astronauts Who Flew Her. Touchstone, 2017.