News | Feb. 1, 2023

The story of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory – part four

By Staff

Part Four of the story of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory article

This is the fourth and final story about the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). Read part three here.

The MOL program was stood up so the United States could collect immediate and on-demand intelligence in response to unanticipated events, like the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, while it was approved for development, skeptics sought to end the program before it even began.

Developing the program was expensive in a decade full of large expenses. During the 1960s, the United States was fighting the Vietnam War, funding NASA’s goal of reaching the moon by the end of the decade, and supporting President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” efforts. With so many large programs operating at the same time, many in Congress saw MOL as a duplicative effort of the Apollo program, so it came as no surprise that the MOL program budget was cut by 60 percent by the 1967 fiscal year. The result of this budget cut was an immediate six-month delay of the first manned flight, from November to April 1969. This would not be the last delay due to funding issues for MOL and only fueled calls to cancel the program.

Critics hoping to cancel the MOL program argued that while Very High Resolution (VHR) imagery would potentially fill intelligence gaps, the costs to obtain this capability were not believed to be worth it. Adding to this criticism was a 1967 report examining the potential overlap between the MOL and NASA’s Apollo programs. This report confirmed critics’ beliefs that the programs were complementary instead of competitive, and feared that potentially combining the programs, such as using Apollo as a reconnaissance mission, would damage NASA’s image as a peaceful agency. Despite calls to cancel the program, advocates worked tirelessly to keep it alive.

While criticism persisted, MOL personnel argued that VHR imagery would have provided comprehensible evidence for decision-makers during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In addition, Director of Defense Research and Engineering John Foster advocated that MOL’s costs were justified by the program’s flexibility and ability to obtain VHR imagery. The Air Force still was not willing to cancel the program altogether but did cut it’s funding in FY 1968 and FY 1969, causing MOL’s launch schedule to slip further and further. Eventually, MOL crewmembers began to leave the program. The first to leave were crewmembers selected in the first group, Michael Adams in 1966 followed by John Finley in 1968. It was taking too long for the program to show its worth, and as a new administration came into office, it would only make it harder to keep it going. 

Once the Nixon Administration entered office in January 1969, the writing was on the wall and renewed calls for the program’s cancellation emerged. This time, the calls came from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director who suggested a review of three large DoD space programs—MOL, Hexagon, and drones—to find areas to save money. This review found MOL to be too expensive and questioned its significance. It was June 10, 1969 when MOL would be officially terminated after four years of development.

At the time of cancellation, 192 military personnel, 100 civilians, and 13,187 contractors were working on the MOL program. Seven of the MOL crewmembers would go on to become NASA astronauts, all of whom would later fly on the space shuttle. Two crewmembers would transfer to NASA and work on programs such as Skylab and the shuttle program. Two other crewmembers would return to active duty with the Air Force where one, Robert Herres, would eventually become the first Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1987.

By late 1973, all MOL offices were closed down, personnel were reassigned, and all equipment was transferred or destroyed. The MOL program was ambitious in its efforts to push the limits of what could be achieved in space. While the program never made it to space, its legacy in the United States space program lives on to this day: from selecting the first black astronaut, to building SLC-6 in California that’s now used to launch other notable missions, such as NROL-91, into orbit. In its entirety, MOL served quietly and secretly as a way to honor President Kennedy’s 1962 call to achieve the impossible. It was decided to undertake the Manned Orbiting Laboratory not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

To access the  previous Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) stories:

Part one  |  Part two  |  Part three