What do you suppose Captain Tony Nelson (Larry Hagman) of the 1960s TV series I Dream of Jeannie was actually doing for the U.S. Air Force? He was training to be the government’s eye-in-the-sky aboard a planned Air Force space station. Aero.org recalls the origin of the so-called “Manned Orbiting Laboratory”:
During one particularly momentous press conference on December 10, 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced both the death of the “Dyna-Soar” space plane and the birth of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). Like the Dyna-Soar, MOL was a farsighted Air Force program that explored the potential for piloted space flights. Like the Dyna-Soar, it was canceled before reaching its goal — but not before making some important contributions in the field of spaceflight and space-station technologies.
The crew would have ridden MOL to orbit and returned to Earth aboard a Gemini-B capsule that was mated to the station. No rendezvous or docking was required. Superficially resembling NASA’s “Gusmobile” (so-named for Mercury 7 astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom), The USAF’s Gemini-B was in fact nearly a new spacecraft. But the 30-centimeter-diameter hatch midships between the capsule’s ejection seats was the only obvious difference.
The one-shot space station used a helium-oxygen atmosphere like the Navy’s SeaLabs, and would provide a shirt-sleeve environment for two military astronauts for up to 30 days. Captain Nelson, Major Daily (and, presumably, a genie in a bottle) were expected to try everything from military reconnaissance using large optical cameras and side-looking radar to interception and inspection of enemy satellites.
The bulked-up Titan IIIM (for “man-rated”) with its massive new solid-rocket boosters would hurl this behemoth into polar orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast — sure to give the Good Strange to the hippies watching the launch plumes. One of the biggest and costliest parts of the MOL program was the construction of a brand-new launch pad, Space Launch Complex Six (SLC-6, or “Slick-Six,” heh heh). Building a second manned-space facility at the height of Vietnam and the Cold Wars, in the windy boonies of Point Concepcion, ranked with moonwalking for New Frontier glamor.
The Manned Orbiting Lab would have been the first U.S. space station, and its crews would have been the first to reach space from the the West Coast, something that’s yet to happen in the Space Age. It would also have sent the nation’s first person of color into space: Major Robert Lawrence, USAF, was selected in June 1967 for the MOL program.
Preliminary design work began in March 1965 and full-scale development in September 1966. Unfortunately, the program ballooned in cost and blurred its mission, just as Vietnam and the Great Society were squeezing everything else to death. The program’s only launch occurred in November 1966. The program was killed off in June 1969.
Slick-Six was later refitted in the 1980s for classified USAF Space Shuttle launches from the West Coast into the coveted polar surveillance orbits. Alas, the Challenger disaster crushed this second florescence, and the honor of West Coast Spaceport went to the unlikely but poetic town of Mojave, near the legendary Pancho’s Happy-Bottom Riding Club of The Right Stuff fame. The Right Stuff remains at Vandenberg; SLC-6 is once again being prepped for flight operations, this time with the Delta 4 super-heavy lifter.
By the late 1970′s both Cold War adversaries had decided most of the functions planned for military astronauts could be accomplished with unmanned systems. (For example, the Mir space station was made of modified Soviet military spacecraft; after the constant repairs to the life-support systems, the crews wound up with little time left over for aiming telescopes and tracking targets.) Some of MOL’s reconnaissance systems ended up (we think) in the later KH series spy satellites, and some of the manned experiments were accomplished aboard NASA’s Apollo Program-based Skylab space station between 1973 and 1975.
“[MOL] remains one of the great ‘what-ifs?’ in the history of space exploration,” Aero.org recalls:
MOL’s use of Gemini technology, proposed at the time as a useful maneuver to help the program win approval, has its admirers in the space community today because of the widespread perception that Gemini hardware was able to perform its tasks using relatively cheap, yet reliable, technology. With renewed emphasis today on the importance of space to U.S. military efforts, more and more observers are looking back to the concepts first proposed 40 years ago by the advocates of MOL.