The Manned Orbiting Laboratory: A USAF Space Station


An artistic view of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the last gasp of the USAF’s manned space program. Public domain image via the San Diego Air and Space Museum archives. Click for larger view.

What is was: A small space station based on the Gemini capsule, to be used by the United States Air Force for reconnaissance and as a platform to study military applications of space. It would have been launched in one piece and carry two men for a thirty-day mission; one variant was intended for longer missions.

Details: When NASA was created in 1958, the United States had no less than four manned space programs. As well as the new civilian agency, the Army, Navy, and Air Force were all interested in putting humans into orbit. The Navy’s was the least far along, and while they did test a prototype lunar lander their whole program soon fell by the wayside. Similarly the Army agreed to the transfer of Werner von Braun’s rocketry team and all the Army’s facilities to NASA in October 1959. It too was out of the game quickly.

The Air Force was the one that kept on reaching for space after that, though starting in 1961 they were forced to work in co-operation with NASA. First the two developed the rather successful X-15 spaceplane together, and then they moved onto developing the X-20 “Dynasoar”. Before that second, more capable spaceplane could be begun in earnest, though, it was cancelled and its role transferred to a new project in December 1963: The Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL).

In fact the Air Force’s space program nearly died right there as the initial proposal was that NASA would do all the work and then just fly the Air Force’s astronauts for them. NASA pushed back, however, uneasy with the role of building a military space station; as a civilian agency, one of their founding principles was the peaceful use of space. The compromise reached in January 1964 was that NASA would give them support, but the MOL would be the Air Force’s baby.

At first the goal of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory was purely research: to determine what the long-term effects of being in space would be on the human body (when the MOL was approved, the space duration record was just shy of five days), and to determine what military operations could be done in space.

Cutaway view of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory

A cutaway view of one configuration of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. Click for larger view. Public Domain image from the USAF.

The basic plan for the MOL took the two-man Gemini capsule and rebuilt it so that it could serve as the command module of a larger craft. This so-called Gemini B was placed on top of a larger crew cabin, which in turn sat on top of a mission module which could be swapped in and out depending on that particular MOL launch’s goal. There were at least three modules planned: one for earth sciences study, one for astronomy, and one for testing space subsystems like solar panels and laser communications. The portions of the station below the Gemini B would be accessed through a hatch cut through the capsule’s heat shield—an approach that caused concern at first, but turned out to be viable after a test launch and re-entry on November 3, 1966. The capsule would then be put in hibernation while the station was occupied and, after the mission was over, it would be reoccupied, detached from the habitation and mission modules, and used to return to Earth. After the astronauts splashed down, the station would then be allowed to decay out of orbit on its own.

The whole thing was at first to be lofted on top of a Titan IIIC rocket, but by early 1966 the station had grown in size to the point that a specialized Titan with enhanced strap-on boosters, the Titan IIIM, was put into development. By the time the program reached its end, the idea of using the even more capable Saturn IB was being mooted.

Meanwhile the purely research mission of the MOL was deemed too expensive to justify and its goals were accordingly expanded. The initial mission parameters had quite specifically arranged for the MOL to be launched into an equatorial orbit that never exceeded 36 degrees of inclination; this meant that the MOL would never pass over the Soviet Union, specifically to avoid a military reconnaissance mission except to the extent that photography from orbit would be tested with an eye to a future program. So as it became clear that pure research was a no-go, a reconnaissance mission was added in 1965 and the capabilities of the station upgraded. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara also authorized three contractors in the aerospace industry to study what else the MOL could do. The Air Force started development of the KH-10 camera for the MOL and also began upgrading Vandenberg Air Force Base into the United States’ second major space launch facility after Cape Canaveral so that a higher inclination orbit could be reached.

Just as the Manned Orbiting Laboratory was gearing up, it ran headlong into Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs and the cost of the Vietnam War. The United States’ budget was strained to the limit and the MOL consistently got the short end of the stick. The Air Force estimated they needed US$600 million in 1968 to develop it and got $430 million instead. This pushed back the program’s first launch from late 1969 to late 1970. The next year was no better. Estimates for 1969 were from US$600 to US$640 million, and they were to be given $515 million.

After Richard Nixon was elected at the end of 1968 the numbers got even worse. The first manned launch slipped to mid-1972, and then the US economy dipped into recession and the amount of money available dropped again.  Without an infusion of more cash the program literally could not move forward, and it was becoming apparent that the unmanned Keyhole satellites were going to match the performance of the KH-10 on the station. A radical rethink was necessary.

What happened to make it fail: A perfect storm of circumstances. First, Robert McNamara was replaced as Secretary of Defense. His technophilia and interest in space had helped protect the MOL despite his otherwise strong tendency to consolidate programs.

Second, as the Keyhole satellites proved their worth the MOL was left entirely as a platform for research into what the Air Force might want to do in space. It became, quite literally, a solution in search of a problem.

Third, the Vietnam War was eating up money for the military, and it was necessary to cut many programs to their cores. Something as speculative as the MOL, without an active military purpose now that reconnaissance was out of the picture, wasn’t going to survive.

Finally, with the Apollo program on the brink of success NASA was ceasing to be the focus of public and political interest and no longer could resist an attempt to merge the Air Force and civilian programs as they had done in 1963-64. On June 10, 1969 the new Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird informed Congress that he was cancelling the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. At the same time the new NASA administrator, Tom Paine, was pushing for a new spaceplane to follow on to the Apollo program. To his chagrin he got what he wanted but only if the MOL’s missions were folded into what would become the Space Shuttle (much to the detriment of its design).

What was necessary for it to succeed: Several things would have had to broken differently for the MOL to fly. Its main backer in high places was Robert McNamara, and he resigned as Secretary of Defense a few months before the 1968 presidential election that removed the Democratic Party from that office entirely. If he had stayed on, and had the election been lost by Nixon, then it might have flown. Taken as a whole, this is not a likely possibility.

Past that, the MOL’s real problem was the lack of a mission. Even with McNamara behind it, the Air Force’s space program had been slowly dying on the vine since the early 60s. Once McNamara was replaced, the only thing that was going to keep it from being folded into NASA was something to do. As long as it stayed a pure research mission, it was going to be at the tail end of the queue for money and resources where cancellation would always loom.

8 thoughts on “The Manned Orbiting Laboratory: A USAF Space Station

  1. So what caused the Air Force to drop its original military plans? The X-20 was certainly intended for shooting at, or sabotaging, Soviet satellites, but that aspect of things seems to have been dropped by the time the MOL was being designed.

    • Bear in mind that the original plan for it was that the MOL would have no military application at all. I suspect that the Air Force was just deferring the anti-satellite mission for a later program, much like they intended with reconnaissance missions at first. When the one got added back on, it was implausible to claim that the other would be too: the MOL had no maneuvering capability.

      (Pay no attention to the transtage on the diagram I posted — with one it could have maneuvered, but as far as I can tell the final design of the MOL didn’t have one.)

      • I have a more personal question that no one ever talks about, at 18 years old in 1964 I was a member of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory as a “Volunteer Airman” directly out of Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base and took part in the medical research at Brooks AFB, as a medical test subject.
        My questions are; Why are the names of those Volunteer Airman unavailable, and there is extremely little or no meaningful acknowledgement of our existence for the period from 1964 – 1969? Nor have we been given any recognition for our service to the space program and to our country as fellow Americans, as have been given to Air Force officers. Be it collectively or individually for those of us “Volunteer Airman” who served our country as medical Data resources and who took part in a variety of medical research in behalf of the space program and not as it has been reported that we were somehow only involved in testing food as it has been suggested by the extremely limited information given to the general public? Please respond!

        • Interesting question, but probably asked of the wrong person. If I had to hazard a guess, though, it’s the inevitable military secrecy. Unless there’s a good reason to let something go, it won’t be. Have you tried an FOIA request?

          • Yes of course, I tried without a response, I have also requested my records many times from the military record center in ST. Louis, MO. also without a response. I even spoke to someone claiming to be a supervisor more than once. Each time I was told that they had received my multiple request but would not provide me with any further information.

            I have been seeking information since 1970, even writing president Clinton when he was in office in 1997, and receiving a letter from NASA in response directing me back to the black hole of the Air Force.

            I have made hundreds if not thousands of contacts over the years and in the 1970’s at one point when contacting Brooks AFB trying to locate my personal medical records respecting the MOL. I was threaten and told to stop seeking classified information. Yet my questions continue to remains a secret today. why!

            • My Fellow Veteran, Try getting the Service Officer of Your local V.F.W. or American Legion Post to help You. Also, have You checked with Your local Veteran’s Service center ( ALL counties in ALL states are required to have them,; some are better at helping than others). Hope this helps

    • “So what caused the Air Force to drop its original military plans?”

      An agreement between the USA and the USSR that space missions and capabilities were a part of the nuclear deterrence infrastructure, and that interference with them had strategic-level implications.

  2. The MOL program was a parallel program to Gemini. Astro-“nauts” and Astro-“spies” worked with mostly the same technology. Astronauts could drive Corvette’s and buy drinks around Houston. The 17 astrospies just smiled and stayed silent. Some of them went on to the highest levels in the DoD.

    Some of the pilots became space shuttle astronauts. Vice Admiral Richard Truly even became the head of NASA. Lieutenant General James Abrahamson was put in charge of President Reagan’s Star Wars program; General Robert Herres would become Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

    A secret for decades, it wasn’t until late 2004 that a NASA employee was nosing around Launch complex 5/6 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral and discovered a room with a big padlock and no key anywhere. Inside they found “lightly soiled” spaceflight uniforms. Astronauts had their names sewn into their suits. These were labeled “007” and “008”.

    As this article mentions MOL and the brave men who trained for it never got off the ground. A month before Apollo 11, in June 1969, MOL was abruptly cancelled. What the article does not mention is the tremendous “astrospy space race” with the Soviets that peaked in early 1969.
    Five years after America gave up on the MOL program, the Soviets launched the Almaz capsule – a rotating, manned satellite with a high resolution cameras and even a 23mm cannon! Colonel Pavel Popovich and his flight engineer Lieutenant Colonel Yuri Artukhin completed a 15 day mission to dock and operate the Almaz. In 1977 the program was cancelled after just 81 days of operation The age of video camera satellites came soon after.

    It’s all in a book by spy docmentarian James Bramford. I recommend the wonderful documentary on PBS: Astrospies (Nova Series airdate February 12, 2008)

    Listen to the American astrospies discuss their stories. Listen to their Russian counterparts and even a tour of an Almaz capsule in storage at a secret location near Moscow. The visit to the secret room at Launch Complex 5/6 is mesmorizing (hopefully not “movie magic”). Here is a transcript of the show (irritating — you probably have to link with your local PBS station to view it..)

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