News | Dec. 19, 2022

The story of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory – part three

By Staff

Part Three of the story of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory article

This is the third part about the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). Read part two here.

By 1966, after years of planning, the MOL program made major strides to place a man in orbit to collect high-resolution reconnaissance photography. Congress authorized funding to build Space Launch Complex 6 (SLC-6) at Vandenberg Air Force Base (now Space Force Base) on the West Coast. MOL crewmembers, now integrated into many sectors of MOL’s development, worked tirelessly to improve the program in a number of areas including computer programming and flight suit preparation.

The MOL program needed innovation to achieve objectives in brand new fields like software.  A primary program objective was using the crew onboard MOL to help select areas to photograph at the optimal time. Crewmembers were expected to evaluate if an area should be photographed and instruct the computer what to do in less than 25 seconds. Thus, a computer program had to be developed to allow inputs on objective priorities and integrate those priorities into the system, in real-time. This would allow the computer to adjust how and when it took images of objectives.

Developing such a computer program was no easy task, but MOL crewmembers Richard Truly and Lachlan Macleay made the concept a reality. Truly and Macleay briefed the Vice President and other officials in 1967 on how they planned to create the program and by 1969, they achieved success. As MOL grew closer to becoming a reality, skeptics still questioned the program’s need to exist. From the very beginning, the need to launch a man into orbit for the purpose of space reconnaissance was questioned. The NRO director at the time, Brockway McMillan was concerned that there was too much stress placed on the manned role while not enough emphasis on the experimental aspects of the program at large. The President’s Scientific Advisory Committee (PSAC) compounded these concerns by stating that the increased amount of more accurate images promised by MOL was insufficient to justify a manned system. Finally, Dr. Donald Hornig, the president’s scientific advisor, noted in a memorandum that the Air Force had proved why a manned system was required; however, there would be political questions about the program’s manned nature. Despite all their misgivings, Dr. Horning and other detractors recommended continuing the program’s development as long as a manned and unmanned option were concurrently developed.

As some concerns eased, others tensions appeared. NASA viewed MOL as a competitor to its own ambitions for placing a space station in orbit and clashed with the Air Force over its development. This began when the Air Force Space Systems Division recommended the MOL program work directly with contractors for its version of the Gemini B pod, a recommendation that went directly against the desires of NASA. NASA and the Air Force continued to clash, but it generally never permeated past leadership levels, although intervention by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was required. McNamara offered a compromise between NASA and the MOL program: NASA would accept MOL as a predecessor to a NASA space station, Air Force would run as operating manager, and NASA would manage the scientific program.

This compromise resulted in the MOL program welcoming NASA employees in 1966. While NASA employees would be assigned to the MOL program for the life of the program, developing a cooperative relationship was arduous due the differences between NASA and MOL. NASA strived for public attention while MOL was aiming to avoid any and stayed behind high levels of classification. While the relationship was fragile, there proved to be mutual benefits for both agencies. One appeared in 1968 as MOL flight surgeons were assigned to manned Apollo missions. This gave MOL personnel desperately needed experience with manned space operations, and NASA gained much needed personnel in bioastronautics support.

Since it was established early on that MOL required an alternate public explanation different from its highly classified mission, many in the public did not understand the difference between NASA’s Apollo program and the DOD’s MOL program. The lack of understanding extended to Congress, which was evident in its constant budgetary challenges and a new wave of program skeptics. Ultimately, the end of MOL was on the horizon before man would take its first steps on the moon.

Learn about the end of the MOL program in part four. Read part four here.