256. The Space Station That Never Was

 275px-mol_usafI love conspiracy theories. I don’t believe them, but they’re fun.

We do know that much is hidden from us. The SR-71 Blackbird was a myth, sworn not to exist, for most of it’s operational life, so why not believe in the Aurora, or at least wish it were real and dream up stories that use it.

The problem with actually believing in conspiracies is that most conspirators are too dumb to pull them off. Still, occasionally . . .

In 2005 two spacesuits of unknown origin were found in a locked room in a NASA museum. They were not connected with any known program, and presented a mystery to be solved. The story of chasing that mystery was well told by NOVA in its 2008 episode Astrospies. A decade after the discovery, and seven years after the NOVA program, files and photos were declassified and the secrets of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory were fully revealed.

The Air Force has long had a hand in spaceflight. As early as 1957, it funded development of a spaceplane, the X-20 Dyna-Soar. Ultimately that project was scrapped because of the success of the Mercury and Gemini programs, but USAF shifted goals to the Manned Orbiting Laboratory and continued.

The existence Manned Orbiting Laboratory project was not secret. It was announced in 1963 but most of what went on was not revealed to the public. Essentially, it was an orbiting spy station designed to take pictures of military interest. MOL was a single use vehicle. It was designed to be launched, used for a forty day mission, then abandoned. At that time the crew would return via a Gemini B capsule which was launched with the MOL.

MOL was designed for a stacked launch. The launch vehicle was to carry the MOL with the manned Gemini B in place at the top. Once in polar orbit, the Gemini B would be powered down and the two astronauts would move into the MOL where they would spend their mission taking pictures of the Earth through advanced camera system called KH-10. At the end of the mission, the astronauts would reactivate the Gemini B and return to Earth in it, abandoning the MOL.220px-titan-3c_mol-gemini-b-test_3

The Gemini B was virtually identical to the Gemini used by NASA, except for a hatch through the heat shield that allowed astronauts to move between it and the MOL.

The initial launch took place on Nov. 3, 1966 from Cape Canaveral. The MOL launched was a boilerplate mockup made from a Titan propellant tank, and the Gemini B was the prototype, and unmanned. The capsule returned to Earth safely, proving the modified heat shield, and is on display today at the Air Force Space and Missile Museum.

In June 1969, the project was cancelled. No manned and functioning flight was made. By the time of its cancellation, progress had outrun the program, and unmanned reconnaissance satellites had proved that they could do the job more cheaply than the MOL.

In all seventeen astronauts trained to fly MOL missions. One was Robert Lawrence, the first black astronaut, who died in training in 1967. (see 167. On the Brink of Glory) When the program was cancelled, all the astronauts who were under 35 years old were offered jobs at NASA. The seven who were eligible all accepted and became NASA Astronaut Group 7. All flew on the space shuttle.

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