News | Nov. 28, 2022

The story of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory – part two

By Staff

This is continuation of the story of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). Read part one here.

President Lyndon Johnson approved the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) in 1965 so development could proceed. MOL was originally planned to have six launches, each with a mission length of 30 days. This was an ambitious goal: 30 days would be the longest any human had spent in space to date. It was only three years earlier in 1962 that John Glenn became the first American to orbit the planet, and when MOL was publicly announced, the NASA Gemini V mission just completed eight days in space.

General Bernard Schriever, who would be director of the program until his retirement in 1966, began work on MOL. Before its official approval in 1965, Requests for Proposals were issued and by 1967, MOL’s development was well under way. Instead of selecting one company, multiple companies were awarded different pieces of the program. This was done to best match a company’s capability with a specific requirement for the program. From radios to waste management, launch vehicle to flight suits, many companies were contracted for work on MOL. The primary companies were:

Aerospace Corporation – handled general systems engineering & technical direction

Douglas Aircraft Company – developed the MOL laboratory and mission module structure, and systems integration (was the largest contract for the program)

Eastman Kodak – provide the photographic equipment for MOL’s classified mission

General Electric Company – provided the mission module equipment and experiment integration

Hamilton Standard – provided the pressure suits that crewmembers would wear

Martin Marietta Corporation – provided the Titan IIIM booster that would launch MOL into orbit

McDonnell Aircraft Corporation – provided the Gemini B capsule for the crewmembers to sit in

Work on MOL was progressing and the process to find the first MOL crewmembers became the next priority. Due to the strict security requirements of the program, many of the applicants knew little about MOL. A selection board that included Chuck Yeager, the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound and commandant of the test pilot school, selected the first group of eight MOL crewmembers. In total, three groups of MOL crewmembers would be selected by 1967:

Group One: Michael Adams, Albert Crews Jr., John Finley, Richard Lawyer, Lachlan Macleay, Francis Neubeck, James Taylor, and Richard Truly

Group Two: Karol Bobko, Robert Crippen, C. Gordon Fullerton, Henry Hartsfield, and Robert Overmyer

Group Three: James Abrahamson, Robert Herres, Robert Lawrence Jr., and Donald Peterson

The crewmembers came from the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps to be a part of a unique program that guaranteed the adventure of going to space. The MOL program was responsible for a number of firsts that continued with the selection of crewmembers: by being selected for MOL, Major Robert H. Lawrence became the first African American astronaut. From the onset, this elite crew was integrated throughout the development of the program. Some worked on the flight controls and computer programming, and others developed the flight suit.

In addition to developing the program, these crewmembers would undergo intense mission training. Similar to survival training, MOL requirements would prepare the crewmembers for deorbiting in the event of unexpected emergencies like leaks in the spacecraft. Additional instruction was also required to use NASA facilities, such as NASA’s underwater training and spacecraft simulators. To prepare, all MOL crewmembers attended the Navy dive school in Key West, Florida where playful competition between the Navy and the Air Force ensued. Thanks to then Baltimore Colts head trainer Eddie Brock, MOL crewmembers received professional athletic training to ensure they were at their best physically during visits to the Apollo simulator in Baltimore, Maryland. Occasionally, the crewmembers would even meet some of the Colts players during training sessions and play handball with them. Some of the most important training for MOL crewmembers came from the National Photographic Interpretation Center where they learned more about photographic intelligence and subject recognition.

While the crew trained for missions in space and MOL development progressed, trouble was brewing. MOL had a number of critics who didn’t fully believe in its concept, including its unclassified and classified missions. From the onset, critics questioned if another satellite photoreconnaissance program was necessary with doubts coming from the President’s administration to NASA.

Jump into concerns and criticism around the MOL program in part three! Read part three here​.