A Sudden Loss of Altitude

Meet the MOL-men. Prepared to make space history, these military pilots instead became a footnote to it.

Manned Orbiting Laboratory.jpg
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

The moment, when it finally arrived, was bittersweet—bitter for having taken three decades to complete the journey of an afternoon, sweet to have a broken circle closed at last.  December 8, 1997, marked the 30th anniversary of a crash at California’s Edwards Air Force Base in which 32-year-old Major Robert H. Lawrence Jr. was killed.  Most accounts refer to the crash as a training accident.  In the same spirit, one would call an extreme skier’s fatal hundred-foot plunge a spill.

On that day in 1967, Lawrence occupied the rear seat of an F-104D Starfighter, with Major Harvey Royer, operations chief at the Aerospace Research Pilot School, in front as pilot in command.  The two took off into the pounding clarity of the desert afternoon, climbed to 25,000 feet, and began shooting approaches meant to simulate the return of a spaceplane from orbit.  The profile called for a 25-degree dive (the average airliner’s glide slop is inclined about three degrees) and an airspeed of 330 mph, with thrust at idle power and landing gear, flaps, and speed brakes all fully extended.  The idea was to land a fast-moving machine from which the will to fly had been largely removed.

During one approach, according to the official Air Force summary, “the aircraft contacted the runway left of centerline, approximately 2,200 feet from the approach end.  Both main gears collapsed on the runway on first contact, and the canopy shattered.  The fuselage dragged on the runway for 214 feet before the aircraft again became airborne.  It subsequently touched down at the 4,000 foot mark, veered to the left and departed the runway at the 4,235 foot mark.”  Its underside blazing from the first impact, the F-104 veered off the runway and began to come apart.  Both pilots ejected.  Royer, badly injured, survived.  Lawrence got out, but his parachute failed to deploy fully.

The two men were preparing for a new era in which pilots—military pilots—would take the high ground of space.  Lawrence already was among a small cadre of exceptional fighter pilots training to be the first Air Force astronauts.  If things had gone according to plan, they would have lived and worked aboard the space station well before any NASA astronaut or Russian cosmonaut set foot inside a Skylab or Salyut.

But Lawrence lost his opportunity to soar beyond the atmosphere—and to be the first African American to go there—that terrible afternoon at Edwards.  Thirty years later to the day, the Florida-based Astronauts Memorial Foundation settled a long-running dispute over who exactly should be considered an astronaut and engraved his name on a commemorative mirror bearing the names of fallen space travelers.

The Air Force, though, has never had its own broken circle closed.  Its space station, called the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, was suddenly and without much argument canceled in June 1969, without ever getting the chance to prove its utility.  The 1960s presumption that by the end of the century the Air Force would have become a space force quickly evaporated, and today, even advocates of an extraterrestrial military presence can only just recall the time when the question was not whether, but how soon.

When the 1960s began, it looked as if wars would have to be fought on every front from seabed to Earth orbit.  The cold war had begun to burn hot in African and Asia, and a good part of the developing world was dividing along ideological lines.  Francis Gary Powers, his U-2 spyplane brought down by a missile in May 1960, was doing 10 years in a Russian prison.  By the time he was traded for a Soviet spy in 1962, his erstwhile hosts were thinking about a 75-ton manned space platform that could carry nuclear weapons into low Earth orbit—Battlestar Khrushchev.  Indeed, back then it looked as if space might go to the Soviets.

Not to be outgunned, the U.S. Air Force sketched out a 10-year plan in 1961 that assumed battle lines would extend into Earth orbit.  As the obvious gatekeeper to the new theater of operations, the Air Force proposed putting a continuous military force into space in the form of piloted craft, manned surveillance platforms, and space stations.  It would cost tens of billions of 1960s-vintage dollars, but it might help prevent that other reasonable expectation of the epoch: thermonuclear war.

The Air Force already had rocketplanes, most notably the X-15, which took pilots to the brink of space.  By 1963 Joe Walker had flown an S-15 to an altitude of 67 miles, a record for a winged vehicle that stood until the space shuttle Columbia broke it 18 years later.

The next step was to have been a piloted delta-wing craft that could ride into orbit on a Titan booster, maneuver and rendezvous in space, and glide back to Earth much as the shuttle does today.  It was seen as an all-purpose spaceship—freighter, scout, fighter, nuclear bomber.  With this craft, the Air Force would have an offensive capability in orbit.

Someone, ignoring the Fates, called it Dyna-Soar (from “dynamic soaring”) and thus doomed it to extinction.  Even with an appetite for delays and design changes, Dyna-Soar might have survived the realities of engineering development.  But it had almost no chance of surviving the Department of Defense, whose stern new headmaster was scrutinizing all the upperclassmen’s privileges.  A vessel such as Dyna-Soar, whose strong suit was exploring operational terra incognita, was ill-equipped to parry questions of cost and performance asked by Robert McNamara’s Pentagon.

The end, when it came on December 10, 1963, took curious form.  Having found the billion-dollar space glider wanting in the cost/benefit equation, McNamara canceled Dyna-Soar.  But, after flunking one bad boy, the headmaster beamed with favor on another.  He authorized the Air Force to take a closer look at another of its ideas, a stripped-down space station called the Manned Orbiting Laboratory.  There was a catch, though: MOL would fly only if the generals could first define and justify a military mission in space that couldn’t be done by NASA.

Both the civilian space agency and the defense department had already begun playing with ideas for Earth-orbiting outposts and had signed an agreement only a few months earlier promising that any work on a national space station would be coordinated “to the greatest extent possible.”  But at the time, Americans had logged only 54 hours in space, and neither the Air Force nor anyone else had a clear idea of what humans could and couldn’t do up there.

Still, if the Air Force wanted a space program, MOL was now the only game in town.  So the service began to pull together a project.  A few basics had already been established: The station would consist of a modified Gemini capsule attached to a cylindrical model 10 feet in diameter and 42 feet long.  About half of this volume would be a pressurized working environment for the two-man crew.  Another unpressurized section would contain life support equipment, plus a restartable rocket engine for orbital adjustments.

A Titan III would launch the station whole into a 150-mile-high orbit.  Once aloft, the two astronauts would leave the Gemini, which rested in the forward end of the lab module like a stopper in an aluminum decanter, and move into their workplace.  After a week or two—the maximum duration of a MOL mission was to be about 30 days—the crew would return to the Gemini capsule, separate from the lab module, and orient their little craft, heatshield forward, for reentry, a parachute descent, and recovery at sea.  The station was not designed for permanence: Once abandoned, it would be deorbited to burn up in the atmosphere, and a new one would be launched for the next mission.

The Air Force called the station a laboratory, but the work inside was hardly to be pure science.  The flights were billed from the beginning as what a Time magazine article called “military patrols—watching and photographing activity behind the Iron Curtain, inspecting suspicious satellites and destroying them if desirable.  Patrols might carry nuclear weapons for use against the ground or other spacecraft.  Some optimists believe that they might even detect hostile nuclear submarines below the surface of the ocean.”

The primary experiments proposed for MOL appear to corroborate its reconnaissance mission.  At the top of the list were the use of large optics in space, tracking of targets on and off Earth, electromagnetic intelligence surveys, multi-spectral photography, and post-strike target assessment.  MOL would carry the six-foot-diameter KH-10 spy camera (code name Dorian), which could resolve features as small as a softball.  In fact, the MOL mission profile bore a powerful resemblance to that of its Russian counterpart, the Salyut military space station, which also was equipped for surveillance and which first flew in 1974.

The astronauts would also explore the assembly of large structures—for example, the linking of several MOLs into an orbiting complex that eventually would have looked rather like the Russian Mir.  They would learn to maintain and repair their craft, do biomedical experiments, and conduct spacewalks with a backpack maneuvering unit (which eventually flew on NASA’s Skylab space station in the 1970s).

But today, a polar-orbiting MOL sounds less like a Skylab-type undertaking than the first military outpost in space, a U-2 no Soviet missile could reach, and perhaps something more.  That may explain why, 30 years on, those who worked on the project still won’t say much about its mission.  Lachlan Macleay, who was among the first group of MOL pilots chose in 1965, says only: “As far as I’m concerned, nothing has been declassified at all.  We spent a lot of time in training, let me put it that way.”

President Lyndon Johnson gave MOL an official go-ahead in August 1965.  Douglas Aircraft would build the laboratory module and McDonnell Aircraft the modified space capsule called Gemini-B.  General Electric would manage the onboard experiments.  Launches would be from both Cape Kennedy in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, which would allow the lab to reach high enough latitudes to fly over the Soviet Union.  The first unmanned shot was scheduled for 1968, with the first crew to follow later that year.  Within hours of the White House announcement that MOL would go ahead, a dusk of secrecy settled upon the project, and from that point on the public would see only its innocuous exterior.

MOL’s advocates in the Air Force must have felt relieved.  At last they could begin thinking in terms of hardware and flight testing.  And they could begin sorting through the best of the best, looking for space station crews.  The first MOL pilots—the title they proudly adopted to differentiate themselves from NASA astronauts—were named in November 1965: Air Force Majors Albert Crews and Michael Adams (who would leave MOL in July 1967 to fly the X-15); Air Force Captains Richard Lawyer, Lachlan Macleay, Gregory Neubeck, and James Taylor; and Navy Lieutenants John Finley and Richard Truly.

Truly, who at the time was enrolled in test pilot school at Edwards, recalls that Chuck Yeager, then head of the school, and his deputy handpicked the MOL crew.  “They never even asked me,” he says.  It was nearly a year between the time the eight were selected and the day their names were made public.  The announcement came on Truly’s 28th birthday.

The first MOL-men were members of the same fraternity that produced NASA’s early astronauts.  “We all knew each other,” says Macleay, a former U-2 pilot who had twice been rejected by the space agency for being, at six foot two, too tall.  Once selected, the MOL pilots flew the same kinds of simulators that their civilian counterparts flew, endured the same jungle survival courses, and ran into each other during the same frequent trips to McDonnell’s Gemini plant in St. Louis.

If any rivalry existed between the two groups, it was defused by the fact that their missions did not overlap.  But the contrast between the programs didn’t escape the MOL pilots.  NASA, recalls Macleay, “had really neat simulators—I mean, even their offices were nice.  They were really kind of first class.”  And while the astronauts were driving Corvettes and appearing on the cover of Life, “we were just low-key.  Hardly anybody knew we even existed.”  The original MOL group, with perhaps the slightest edge of mockery, dubbed themselves “The Magnificent Eight.”

“It was kind of a source of pride among ourselves,” Macleay laughs.  “We used to joke that the only news announcement made when we launched would be something like ‘The Air Force launched two guys into space today from Vandenberg, and they’ll be back in 30 days.’”

In June 1966, five more pilots were named: Air Force Captains Karol Bobko, Gordon Fullerton, and Henry Hartsfield, Navy Lieutenant Robert Crippen, and Marine Captain Robert Overmyer.  Fullerton was assigned to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio when the call came for applications for MOL and NASA.  “You indicated which program you wanted, or both,” he recalls.  “I checked both.”

A final foursome—all Air Force officers—was named the following June, having just graduated from test pilot school: Lieutenant Colonel Robert Herres and Majors Robert Lawrence, Donald Peterson, and James Abrahamson.

Training was conducted in two phases, the second of which dealt specifically with MOL.  Some of the initial training was generic preparation to become Air Force astronauts, which meant helping to develop and test the odd hybrid vehicles that would eventually take them and their successors into space.  MOL pilots flew flight simulators and aircraft rigged (or forced) to behave like spacecraft, including an NF-104A, which was equipped with a 6,000-pound-thrust rocket motor.  They flew hair-raising approaches like the one Harvey Royer and Robert Lawrence were attempting when Lawrence died, and they flew high-energy zooms that took them close enough to the rim of the atmosphere that they had to wear pressure suits.

On the academic side, they studied rocket power, mechanics, and the biomedical aspects of spaceflight.  And there was always that other, secret side of MOL to learn.

“We had a huge volume of work,” recalls Richard Lawyer.  “I came from a combat-ready fighter unit and I felt my flying skills were going downhill.  But in the second six months, you really felt like you were learning something.”

While the crews trained and studied, their orbital station began to evolve slowly from concept to actual hardware.  The project borrowed whatever ideas, equipment, and manpower it could from NASA (Congress more than once directed the two agencies not to duplicate efforts) and invented when necessary.  McDonnell, for example, had to figure out how to move the crew from the Gemini capsule to the lab module after MOL reached orbit.  The engineers tried various ideas—spacewalks, an inflatable crew transfer tunnel connecting the Gemini and module hatches, rotating the capsule to stick its nose into the module, like a bee’s into a flower, and cutting a 26-inch-diameter circular hatch in the Gemini capsule’s heatshield that the crew could float through.  The last idea was selected provisionally, pending flight tests to determine whether a hatch in the heatshield would stay sealed during reentry.

The Gemini-B required other changes form the NASA version, which had first carried astronauts into orbit in March 1965.  Retro-rockets and other equipment stuffed into a bay behind the shield were modified to accommodate the transfer hatch and MOL’s higher orbit.  The capsule also had to be capable of restarting after its month-long sleep at the tip of the lab module.

At the time, the MOL lab module was the most spacious of any American spacecraft—about 400 cubic feet per astronaut.  The arrangement was simple: two men in a can, with beds at one end, stores at the other, one wall for food and hygiene, one wall for work.  Unlike the later Skylab, MOL had no shower.  It would have felt roomy (“Zero-G really opens up the usable volume,” notes Fullerton) but spartan.

One of MOL’s main purposes was to solve the problems of living in space for extended periods—problems that had not been addressed by the short Mercury and Gemini flights.  “There were a lot of people when the program first started that didn’t think man could survive for 30 days in space,” recalls Macleay.  “They thought you’d come back jelly.”

The laboratory had to be self-sustaining for as long as 30 days at a time, and had to carry enough food, water, and other expendables to sustain two pilots.  Early on, the MOL designers began favoring a two-gas atmosphere instead of pure oxygen for the crew to breathe, and they considered both nitrogen and helium as the second gas.  Macleay remembers one of the more peculiar results of the oxygen-helium tests.  If it had ended up as MOL’s atmosphere, he says, “your voice was going to sound like a duck’s.”

In the spring of 1966, the Army Corps of Engineers acquired almost 15,000 acres of ranch land abutting Vandenberg Air Force Base for its new Space Launch Complex 6.  From SLC-6, the Air Force said, Titans could put into polar orbit vehicles weighing 15 tons—the weight of the MOL station.

And there was good news, for a change, from the defense department.  McNamara told the House Armed Services Committee that MOL would get $159 million in fiscal year 1967, enough to keep things on track for a 1968 launch.  Air Force pilots would be up there before NASA got to the moon.

The engineering side was looking up as well.  On November 3, 1966, a Titan IIIC lifted off from Cape Kennedy carrying a modified Gemini capsule atop a mock MOL canister made from a Titan rocket stage.  When the Gemini’s hatch was examined after an ocean recovery, concerns about a deadly hole in the heatshield vanished.  In fact, the heat of reentry had welded he customized hatch shut.  MOL seemed to be well in hand.

But in January 1967, a harbinger of trouble appeared.  During ground tests at Cape Kennedy, a fire broke out inside the sealed Apollo 1 capsule, killing all three NASA astronauts on board.  This meant a redesign for Apollo, but it also meant a costly reconfiguring of the Gemini-derived capsule used in MOL.

“The Apollo fire forced a review of all materials,” for fire resistance, says Lawyer.  “There was a noncompetitive redesign of the vehicle.  It cost a huge amount.  Indirectly, the fire on the pad had one hell of an impact.”

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.

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.”

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.

Refugees from the canceled MOL program who transferred to the NASA astronaut corps in 1969: (left to right) Karol Bobko, Gordon Fullerton, Henry Hartsfield, Robert Crippen, Donald Peterson, Richard Truly, and Robert Overmyer.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.