Conquest of ‘The High Ground’

by Chris Bergin


Yet they were not, insisted their sponsor, the US Air Force, ‘astronauts’, but rather ‘aerospace research pilots’, with an agenda that remains largely classified to this day.

“When the manned space programme started,” remembered Peterson, who later rode Challenger on her maiden mission, in a November 2002 interview, “the Cold War was in full swing. We were scared to death and there was this feeling that space was the high ground; that is, if you conquered space, you had command of the Earth. The idea that the Russians might be ahead of us was pretty frightening, so there was strong public and government support for the manned space programme and an unlimited budget”.

The most visible example of the seemingly bottomless moneypit available for space exploration during this period was, of course, the Apollo lunar landing project, but in May 1966 more than $1.5 billion had also been pledged by President Lyndon Johnson for a top-secret space-based outpost known as the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). Had this actually reached fruition, it would have provided Peterson, his six colleagues and a handful of others with their first space missions and made them the first men to launch from the West Coast of the United States.

Ideas for a military space station can be traced back to June 1959, when preliminary plans were laid for a two-man laboratory to support a variety of biomedical, scientific and engineering tasks in the strange microgravity environment of low-Earth orbit. Within three years, these sketches had crystallised into a formal proposal for three separate cylindrical modules, launched separately atop Titan II boosters and joined together in space to form a triangular structure. Crews would then be ferried to and from MOL using an Air Force-funded variant of NASA’s two-man Gemini spacecraft.

At one stage, it was envisaged that the laboratory may operate in tandem with another military-man-in-space effort known as ‘Dyna-Soar’ – a reusable winged vehicle lofted by a Titan IIIC rocket – but by December 1963 it seemed inevitable that the latter would be cancelled in favour of MOL. Eitherway, the perceived ‘militarisation’ of space caused concern for many observers, including James Haggerty of the Army-Navy-Air Force Journal and Register, who described MOL as “an ominous harbinger of a reversal in trend, an indication that the services may play a more prominent role in future space exploration at NASA’s expense.

“Whether you label it [as a] development platform, satellite or laboratory, it is clearly intended as a beginning for space station technology,” continued Haggerty. “It is also clearly the intent of this [newly-elected Johnson] administration that, at least in the initial stages, space station development shall be under military rather than civil cognisance”. Moreover, despite its official emphasis on biomedical research and evaluating mankind’s effectiveness in space, President Johnson rather tellingly announced in August 1965 that the ultimate aim of MOL was to “relate that ability to the defence of America”.

The dedication of the outpost to exclusively military activities was further underlined by the head of the Air Force’s aerospace medical group, Stanley White, at a meeting with NASA representatives in May 1966, when he called for greater exploitation by the military of the agency’s biomedical data. This, White argued, would relieve MOL’s pilots of having to conduct such experiments, which the Air Force regarded as a ‘burden’ to their own research objectives. One of the most important military investigations was reconnaissance and surveillance employing large optics, powerful cameras and even side-looking radar instruments.

It had already been realised from early spy satellite results that having trained military observers available in orbit with specialised equipment would allow for the real-time selection of ground-based targets and acquisition of images through gaps in cloud cover. Furthermore, the return and interpretation of Corona reconnaissance satellite images typically took weeks or even months, a time lapse that the Air Force could not afford. With this in mind, the central element of MOL’s surveillance payload was a telescope dubbed ‘Dorian’, fitted with a six-feet-wide mirror and supposedly capable of resolving ground-based objects the size of a softball.

Other instruments included high-resolution optical and infrared cameras, a side-looking synthetic-aperture radar, built by the US Navy, with a resolution of 25 feet – later cancelled because it was too large and heavy to be easily placed into orbit – and an electronic intelligence (ELINT) antenna. Much of the Dorian hardware, analysts have speculated, was probably later employed on KH-9 Big Bird and KH-11 Kennan reconnaissance satellites and may offer hints that both the CIA and Air Force doubted that MOL would ever fly.

For the ‘aerospace research pilots’ selected to travel to the outpost, there were also doubts, but in Hank Hartsfield’s mind they centred on budgetary matters, as more money was siphoned away from MOL to finance the escalating conflict in Vietnam. “It was depressing to see the funding issues that we had,” he said in a June 2001 interview. “Every year, we had a big funding profile where we had to get $600 million…[so] the project planned on that, and then would come the budget [that] was actually passed: ‘You’re only going to get 400, but plan on 600 next year’.

“So we’d spend about 90 days just rephasing the programme – turning subcontractors off for a while – and that’s expensive. Finally, you got the programme back on track and the next year went through the same cycle again. Well, we thought we were going to be, but ‘No, you still aren’t going to get the 600’. Four-hundred-again plan. Of course, as the programme stretches out, the cost goes up because you’ve got a marching army…so the cost had almost doubled in three years”

In fact, by the time Stanley White’s team met with NASA at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas to discuss the sharing of biomedical data, MOL had already guzzled $2.2 billion of taxpayers’ money. The station itself, in its final configuration, was quite different from the three-module triangular structure planned in 1962: it took the form of a 40-feet-long cylinder, powered by either solar arrays or fuel cells, and comprising a transfer tunnel from the pilots’ Gemini spacecraft, a laboratory divided into ‘working’ and ‘living’ quarters and lastly an equipment section loaded with oxygen and other tanks.

One early plan actually called for a tunnel built into the base of the laboratory, extending to an aft docking collar, which would enable two MOLs to be connected together in orbit. Such plans were never realised and had vanished from the Air Force’s radar well before the project was cancelled in June 1969. An interesting aspect of MOL was that the Gemini would have been attached ‘backwards’ to the outpost: rather than linking-up ‘nose-first’, as Apollo did with Skylab, it was through a hatch in the base that crews would have traversed to reach their 30-day home in orbit.

Gemini was, said astronaut John Young, “like sitting sideways in a phone booth…really tight”, and enabling pilots to unstrap, turn around and get through a two-feet-wide hatch behind them would have been tricky. As a result, the Air Force tilted the seats slightly apart, as well as completely redesigning the spacecraft’s instrument displays. However, it was not the size of the Gemini that caused concern; rather, it was the hatch in its heatshield – the very component upon which the crew’s lives would depend during their fiery re-entry through the atmosphere.

The spacecraft and its pilots would have ridden into orbit already attached to MOL, neatly sidestepping the complications of rendezvous or docking, but at the end of their two-to-four-week-long mission, after closing the hatch, they would have had to hope that the tiniest – yet potentially deadliest – gap around the edge of the heatshield would not admit hot gases and tear the Gemini apart. As a result, it was decided to attach a MOL mockup, built from the propellant tank of a Titan II rocket, to NASA’s Gemini-2 spacecraft and launch them on an unmanned test of the new hatch.

On November 3rd 1966, the unusual combo lifted-off from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral and instantly made history as Gemini-2 became the first ‘used’ spacecraft to be refurbished and reflown. Originally launched in January 1965 for a final dress-rehearsal before the first manned Gemini mission, it was later modified by the Air Force with a MOL-specification hatch in its base. Following a 33-minute suborbital flight, it separated from the MOL mockup and began its fiery plunge to Earth. “It came through with flying colours,” exulted Hank Hartsfield. “There was no heating problem or any burn-through. It proved the concept”.

However, one of the key objectives of MOL was that it should operate in polar orbits, which would have resulted in higher-energy re-entries; consequently, the heatshield’s diameter was increased to stick out from the base of the Gemini. Other changes from the standard NASA version of the spacecraft were that its manoeuvring thrusters were removed and its orientation managed instead by several forward-mounted reaction-control jets. Unlike the ‘civilian’ Gemini, which was designed to operate for periods of up to a fortnight with two men aboard, the systems of the Air Force variant were intended for longer-term ‘storage’.

After reaching orbit, the men’s first task would be to shutdown the spacecraft and spend their long mission aboard MOL. They would then reawaken the slumbering Gemini’s systems shortly before re-entry, undock from the outpost and commence their return to Earth. To this end, the spacecraft had only 14 hours of ‘loitering’ capability in its thrusters and life-support systems after separating from MOL. Naturally, the two groups of astronauts – NASA and Air Force – prepared in similar ways to fly different versions of the same machine and Hartsfield later provided some insight into his first experience as a trainee spacefarer.

“We got some of the routine survival training,” he said. “We’d had water survival [and] we’d gone down to Panama for jungle survival. We were getting that kind of training to get ready to go, because we were going to fly out of Vandenberg [Air Force Base in California] into a high-inclination orbit, which meant you covered a pretty good piece of the world. If you had to abort, you could almost go anywhere – jungle or polar regions”.

Even three decades later, both he and Don Peterson were reluctant to talk in too much depth about their specific tasks and restricted their descriptions to ‘generic’ issues. “Of course,” recalled Peterson, “we were flying a capsule in those days, so we were going to land in the water. The Earth is two-thirds water and you might come down someplace that you hadn’t planned, [so] you had to be able to stay afloat and alive maybe for several days until [the Air Force] could get to you. Finding people in those days wasn’t nearly as good as it is now”.

To this day, it is unclear as to which MOL missions Hartsfield or Peterson would have actually flown, although the first pathfinding flight – scheduled for February 1972 at the time of the project’s cancellation – would have been conducted, appropriately, by two Air Force pilots: Commander Jim Taylor and Pilot Al Crews. Further two-man teams would then have been despatched at nine-month intervals for roughly 30-day orbital stays until the fifth and final manned mission in February 1975. At least one MOL flight, it was expected, would carry two US Navy officers, probably Bob Crippen and Dick Truly.

The pilots, like the project itself, were supposed to be highly classified. However, there was a problem: one of them – Bob Lawrence – would have become the first African-American spacefarer when MOL finally flew and, naturally, the media grew to recognise him. “The rest of us were unknowns,” said Don Peterson, “and I could travel on false IDs and nobody had any idea who I was. But [the Air Force] worried because [the press] knew him on sight and it becomes much harder to run a secret programme when one of your guys is a high interest to the media”.

Tragically, Lawrence was killed in an aircraft crash in 1967, two years before the MOL project was cancelled. Both Peterson and Hartsfield are convinced that, had he lived, he would have gone on to become a NASA astronaut and probably flown the Shuttle during the 1980s…

After unstrapping and somehow curling and twisting themselves around and through the hatch in the base of their Gemini, the MOL crews would first have drifted along a tunnel surrounded by cryogenic storage tanks for helium, hydrogen and oxygen to supply the station’s atmosphere and fuel cells. Indeed, following the Apollo 1 disaster in January 1967, it was intended that MOL would have an atmosphere of 31% helium and 69% oxygen, pressurised at five pounds per square inch, to reduce the risk of fire or detrimental medical effects on the pilots.

The only adverse effect, it seemed, would have been some unusual chatter from the crew as they climbed to orbit: after breathing pure oxygen into their spacesuits, helium would also have been steadily pumped into the Gemini to better acclimatise them to the MOL environment. One can imagine that there would have been a few light-hearted smirks and chuckles among flight controllers as they listened in to the squeaky voices of two high-on-helium space explorers…

After entering the outpost, and floating between the cryogenic strorage tanks, the crew would have found themselves in its pressurised section. This was organised into two ‘stories’, each furnished with eight bays nicknamed ‘the birdcage’. Providing further hints as to the kind of work the men would have done aloft, these bays would have contained biochemical test consoles, an experiment airlock, a glovebox for liquids handling, a motion chair on rails and physiology console to monitor their health and an Earth-facing viewport.

By the end of the 1960s, however, with a launch seemingly getting closer, the reality was that MOL was drifting further into oblivion. Members of the workforce complained that, no matter how hard they worked, the project always appeared to be at least a year away from launch. “General [Joseph] Bleymaier was the commander,” recalled Don Peterson, “and he finally went to [President Richard] Nixon and said ‘Either fund this programme or kill it, because we’re burning time and money and we’re not making progress because we don’t have enough funds’”.

After cuts to the number of technical personnel, followed by woefully inadequate budgetary allocations, Nixon finally cancelled MOL on June 10th 1969 to save an unspent $1.5 billion of its estimated total pricetag. The Outer Space Treaty, signed two years earlier, had already imposed enough restrictions on the Air Force to effectively demilitarise many of their proposed activities in Earth orbit and the war in Vietnam was gradually soaking up more funds and resources. By now, MOL had swallowed close to three billion dollars, without even a single, full-scale unmanned flight.

For the pilots, obviously, its cancellation was a devastating blow. “We all thought it was going to come to fruition,” said Bo Bobko in February 2002. “It was a surprise that it was just cancelled one day. I can remember I had a classmate from the Air Force Academy [who] had come to the MOL programme and it was his first day and they called everybody down to the auditorium and [told us that it had] been cancelled”. Hank Hartsfield, who was travelling to Huntington Beach in California, was also astonished, particularly in light of the work accomplished thus far.

“The crew quarters [at Vandenberg] were built, the training building was built, the pad was 90% complete,” he remembered. “It broke our hearts when it got cancelled. I won’t forget the day. I was on my way to a meeting at 7:30 [am], listening to the news and they announced the cancellation. When I got to [MOL prime contractor] Douglas [Aircraft] and walked in, it was like walking into a morgue.

“It caught them completely by surprise. They heard it on the radio, like I did, or they came to work and found they didn’t have a job. It was massive layoffs. People were getting pink slips almost immediately on the contractor force…a very unhappy day”. For the Air Force pilots, the next step seemed to be to volunteer for Vietnam, although they were excluded from flying combat missions. “We had a two-year duty and travel restriction,” said Hartsfield, “because of the classified things we’d been exposed to, we couldn’t be put in an environment where we could get captured”.

Several of the MOL pilots did return to active duty, but seven – Hartsfield, Peterson, Bobko, Crippen, Truly, Overmyer and Fullerton – were ultimately selected in September 1969 as NASA’s seventh group of astronauts. After a wait of more than a decade, each flew at least one Shuttle mission and, in Crippen’s case, as many as four. In fact, the final irony of MOL seems to be that, had Challenger not exploded in January 1986, Crippen would have commanded Mission 62A – the first-ever manned space launch from the West Coast, just as he had been trained to do almost two decades earlier… Features writer Ben Evans is the author of the newly released Springer Praxis publication ‘Space Shuttle Columbia – Her Missions and Crews.’

 Click here: for more details.

 Or here: to ask Ben questions about the book.

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