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MOL illustration
An illustration from a declassified NRO document showing how a future version of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory could be used as a spaceborne command post.

The last spacemen: MOL and what might have been

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On October 22, a crowd of 300 or so gathered at the US Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, for an event both unprecedented and unlikely to recur. Few Americans would recognize the six men, ages 77 to 86, who appeared on stage that night. Some would know the names of those three who, between them, flew on nine Space Shuttle missions, but those accomplishments postdated by decades what the half-dozen had in common. All but one were astronauts. The other was the technical director for a spacecraft never built but that, if flown, might have been the world’s first space station, taking flight, perhaps, the same year the last Apollo left the Moon. Though none on stage used the term, five were once MOL men: US Air Force astronauts, slated for some four years to crew the Manned Orbiting Laboratory.

That no MOL saw flight was arguably no grave loss to national security, as by mid-1969 unmanned spy satellites of similar acuity were some two years from entering service.

From its 1963 announcement to project cancellation on June 10, 1969—called by more than one that night “Black Tuesday”—MOL was ostensibly just that: an orbiting laboratory whose crewmembers were to conduct experiments as to what, if anything, the military might do in space with astronauts. Behind a curtain of strict secrecy, however, MOL was something else entirely: a manned spy satellite, whose giant onboard telescope two crewmen would use to photograph Soviet military targets. The latter mission was so secret not even the initials of its patron were to be uttered by the astronauts themselves.

This year, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) declassified and put online some 20,000 pages of MOL material: 825 documents, 282 images (not one, frustratingly, titled or thumbnailed), and a 8.25-megabyte history of the program, given away free in its 211-page printed form to all there that evening. The Dorian Files Revealed was edited by an NRO historian. An NRO staff member posed questions to the MOL men after both introducing the night’s event and urging the attendees to contact the NRO with suggestions as to what else might be declassified.

That no MOL saw flight was arguably no grave loss to national security, as by mid-1969 unmanned spy satellites of similar acuity were some two years from entering service. MOL’s crewmen, however, were intended to do what no machine of that time could: to decide, in real time, each time a “target” was overflown, exactly what to photograph. They would have done this in seconds via a pair of “spotting” telescopes, then putting the MOL’s raison d’etre—a telescope whose image quality remains classified to this day—into action. As spy satellites had done since 1960, MOL’s photographic film would return to Earth in conical capsules. Upon completion their month-long missions, MOL men were to float back though a hatch cut into their Gemini spacecraft’s heat shield, then depart, leaving their cylindrical “laboratory” to reenter the atmosphere and be destroyed. At time of program cancellation, plans were to fly four MOLs in all. Some $1.3 billion had been spent ($8.43 billion in 2015) on MOL, with a projected (1969 dollar) cost of $1.295 billion required to complete and launch the first MOL, and $130–140 million for each launch thereafter. The ever-escalating costs of Vietnam and the pending advent of the (unmanned) KH-9 “Hexagon” spysats grounded MOL; NASA took on roughly half its would-be astronauts, and other than Skylab, no US space station flew until 2001.

The most cursory perusal of the NRO’s online document collection casts a different light onto the clandestine story, but more interesting by far is the perspective offered by the MOL men themselves. Estimated in 1965 to have cost some $1.5 billion in all, MOL suffered (per long-classified documents) cost overruns and flight delays alike due in part to yearly reductions in requested funding. Able to at long last speak publically about MOL, one Air Force astronaut, James Abrahamson, told of being twice asked by a superior how the program might best deal with funding issues. Each time, Abrahamson urged the first-flown MOL be fully operational. Each time, he said, the date of first flight “slipped” by a year (the occurrence and timing, though not the catalyst both delays being confirmed by MOL’s online papers). Abrahamson’s hard-earned wisdom, decades after: “If you can just get an empty can up there, do it.”

Had MOL first flown in late 1968—perhaps at or around the time Apollo 8 broadcast the words of Genesis from the Moon—might the program’s fate have differed? Though as much a creature of Lyndon Johnson as was Apollo was to Kennedy, even the most rudimentary MOL might well less susceptible to a new administration’s ax. Once fielded, military hardware, let alone new capabilities, tend to avoid elimination.

While many programs have been cancelled during development, in the course of the last century only two cases of outright abandonment of a unique means of “power projection” come readily to mind. The most recent was the US Navy’s seaplane strike force of the 1950s, by which fighters equipped with water skis and four-engined jet-powered flying boats would have been supported by ships or submarines. The advent of missile-carrying Polaris submarines made such redundant. A quarter-century before, the Navy built a pair of giant airships, each an airborne carrier to five biplanes. The loss of Akron and Macon brought that program to an end. The loss to American defense of Martin Seamasters and Convair Seadarts is perhaps dubious, but what if a fleet of rigid airships and their ocean-surveillance aircraft been operating out of Pearl Harbor, say, in 1941?

Had MOLs flown, and proved to be of use, they could have been used in all the ways human spaceflight proponents have argued since the 1950s such space stations could.

What loss to America, then, the MOL? In terms of the MOL as it might first have flow, little or none in terms of national security. Four manned MOLs, in operation for some few years in the 1970s, might well have captured better imagery of hostile nations than did their actual robotic successors, but the US met its surveillance needs without them.

The fundamental loss instead goes beyond even the non-cover story of MOL, and is as much existential as it is operational. As with every seriously considered (which is to say, financially supported) space station proposal in the history of astronautics, MOL was not merely a spacecraft. Instead, the spacecraft that was MOL was the beginning of a system. Little was done to study what MOL, if continued, could have become, but what it could have been remains to this day as far on the horizon as it was in 1969.

Had MOLs flown, and proved to be of use—or, at least, won not merely technical but also political advocacy—they could have been resupplied in orbit (first by end-to-end docking of cargo carrier, later by small “shuttles”); joined in pairs or trios; used as actual laboratories in space; supported on-orbit construction of large antennae, or used as control stations for separately-launched telescopes. In short, they could have been used in all the ways human spaceflight proponents have argued since the 1950s such space stations could. Had an agency committed to defense started this, it might have won longevity superior to that enjoyed by NASA’s programs.

As with “early warning” airships, the effect on US history of flying MOLs is both unknowable and rich with pitfalls. Say Admiral Yamamoto’s fleet had been detected while incoming, ans even attacked and sunk. Would Roosevelt’s speech of December 8, sans evocation of a day of infamy, won public sentiment for a two-front war?

Among the most riveting of the many illustrations recently released by the NRO appears within a 60-page document dated December 31, 1969, some six months after cancellation, whose cover page reads simply, “Advanced MOL Planning”. Pages 16–23 illustrate and describe in some detail potential options for the Air Force’s control of the high ground of space. On a page that, like every other, was decades ago stamped “HANDLE VIA BYEMAN SYSTEM ONLY – SECRET/DORIAN” (above which has been appended, in far smaller letters, the words “NRO APPROVED FOR RELEASE 1 JULY 2015”), one finds at upper left a large space station in the shape of a Y, its three modules docked to a central core. From this high-flying descendent of MOL run jagged lines (“LASER OR EHF”) by which the station maintains communications, presumably command and control of “high altitude observation satellites,” “relay satellites,” aircraft and surface ships, and Air Force ground facilities. Beside the image of the station, pointing to it with an arrow, is the caption “SPACEBORNE COMMAND POST; KEY REQUIREMENT - POST ATTACK SURVIVABILITY.”

Turning to the next page’s “Spaceborne Command Post Characteristics,” one finds data pertaining to a 165,000-pound (75,000-kilogram) 12-man station and a 470,000-pound (213,000-kilogram) 40-man station. The latter was the station previously illustrated, with three mated cylinders and resupplied to the tune of 115,000 pounds (52,000 kilograms) a month. Both station options include in their functions that of “self defense.” The larger station, whose 25-kilowatt power is either solar or a redacted option, improves upon the “limited” functions of “strategic/tactical decision making” and “force control” for the 12-man station.

Page 23 features a simple diagram of the Y-shaped command post. One of its three arms is devoted to living quarters, while another to “general” quarters and “housekeeping S/S.” The third is labeled “combat information center.” Each arm has a pair of adjustable 25-kilowatt solar panels, for a total power of 150 kilowatts. Such might have been, per caption, the US Air Force’s “SYNCHRONOUS ALTITUDE COMMAND POST.”

MOL illustration
An illustration from a declassified NRO document of a “synchronous altitude command post” capable of supporting 40 people.

MOL-world at its most advanced, then, would have put 40 Air Force crew at an altitude of 36,000 kilometers above the Earth. “Strategic/tactical decision making” would, in the event of global war (presumably not otherwise, save at the command of those earthbound), occur aboard a station equipped for self defense. This was not of course an option actually pursued to any degree beyond this concept, but it described what could still be the beginnings of the literal militarization of space.

Post-MOL, the closest history has come to realizing significant off-world armament was Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Far more billions were spent on that program than MOL, but with as little operational success. On the whole, however, it was not technical issues that led George H.W. Bush to downsize pursuit of SDI, nor have later Presidents’ relative lack of enthusiasm for what was once dubbed “Star Wars” been related to engineering. Rather, issues of budgets and political controversy have to date left defensive space weaponry as flightless as MOL. Domestic opposition helped make SDI a non-starter under Reagan. To what degree the most grandiose form of SDI would have worked remains unproven for the simple reason it has yet to be seriously attempted.

Imagine MOL-world’s command posts and space lasers as unremarkable a fixture by the year 2001 as were the always-airborne fleets of nuclear-armed B-52s of the 1960s.

Page 24’s “MOL GROWTH ROADMAP” applied projected dates to the various hardware in the Advanced Planning documents. The latest legible year (that of the Synchronous Command Post’s being accidentally obscured) is 1980. Imagine a hypothetical MOL-world, in which Air Force manned military operations had become, prior to Reagan’s election, not only routine, but of a nature to oversee and operate orbital antimissile laser battle stations. Hardly irrelevant to this hypothetical is James Abrahamson’s appointment in April 1984 as the first director of SDI. Had the Command Post been in service, or even in the pipeline, in 1980, would the prospect of Earth-orbiting battle stations have seemed fantastic? Likely not. Could such weapons have been built? Those who worked to design thought so, and still do. But whether even the most expansive missile defense program would or could have rendered intercontinental ballistic missiles, in Reagan’s words, “impotent and obsolete” is a side issue to the question of what shape history might have taken had such hardware been put in space.

Imagine MOL-world’s command posts and space lasers as unremarkable a fixture by the year 2001 as were the always-airborne fleets of nuclear-armed B-52s of the 1960s. Imagine now the application of what’s called the “1% doctrine”—the necessity of America’s defending itself in advance against a serious threat of at least one-percent possibility by any foreign nation—by some future President against some bellicose foreign leader, whose nation does not have a similar antimissile shield in space. A nation possessing—or believing that it possesses—a practical defense against strategic missiles is a nation whose preemptive nuclear first strike might seem a viable “defensive” option.

The International Space Station notwithstanding, the world is little nearer having a practical spacefaring infrastructure for human spaceflight as it was in 1969. To what extent this is a bad thing rarely rises to the level of public discourse, let alone political debate. America has, since 2011’s retirement of the shuttles, no way to send people into space at all. Most citizens seem not to care. Whether space should or should not have become a field for combat management (or, indeed, combat outright) is moot. Whether space merits occupation, let alone exploration, may be argued. But for the world’s second spacefaring superpower, the winner of the space race, to have made itself dependent on its onetime rival for access to space is at the very least bizarre.

In time, one or more of the commercial vehicles under development will carry people. At some point in the future, NASA’s Orion spacecraft may do the same. When such occurs, a “back to the future” moment will be televised as returning astronauts crawl from their bobbing capsule after splashing down to await recovery by ship. In the meantime, US astronauts are guests aboard the spaceships of Vladimir Putin.

Those who came before them enjoyed tickertape parades; those who followed, for some time, toured the globe.

On stage, for some two hours last month, were six representatives of a different path that wasn’t. For good or ill, they did not fly the MOL. One of them, the eldest, had the ignominy of having been named pilot to a prior Air Force space effort. Albert Crews—the spitting image of Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond—was the youngest who might have flown the Dyna-Soar, most beloved to many space buffs of all “might have beens” that ever were. Dyna-Soar, born of the 1950s, was a spaceplane. Small and black, its wings triangular and with upswept tip, Dyna-Soar was meant to pioneer controlled atmospheric reentry and landing. Accorded late in its tortured and complex history the official moniker X-20, Dyna-Soar became “experimental.” It was not. Four crew could have sat within a compartment aft the pilot, or a similar amount of cargo to be carried to some space station. Dyna-Soar’s use to intercept, inspect, and even attack hostile satellites was studied, likewise its carriage of bombs. More intriguing was the construction of that little spaceplane. Unlike the shuttle, Dyna-Soar relied on the “hot structure” mode of atmospheric shielding. Instead of fragile tiles, the metal of its fuselage was to absorb reentry’s heat, then cool.

On December 10, 1963, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara cancelled what one MOL man said John Kennedy had called a “good airplane,” throwing the Air Force the bone of MOL. Albert Crews became a MOL man. Among his fellow seven would-be X-20 pilots was a man who didn’t. He joined NASA. His name was Neil.

On stage last month were six men who, thanks the timely grace the NRO, can finally speak in public of the things they strove to do so long ago. Those who came before them enjoyed tickertape parades; those who followed, for some time, toured the globe. These days, the most of us cannot recognize our astronauts, and think rarely, if at all, to laud them. But we should take some moments to do those things once more. These men’s moment never came, then left sub rosa, before a man had touched the Moon. These men’s words represent the last “first spacemen’s stories” the world will ever know. Give thanks or mourn their stillborn missions, but recall these men. For one moment—perhaps shining, and too brief—they were nearly, for their nation, heroes. Give them that honor, before they leave us. They earned it.