Doomed from the start: The Manned Orbiting Laboratory and the search for a military role for astronauts

Simulators like this were the closest astronauts got to flying the MOL. (credit: USAF)

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the cancellation of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program. MOL was to be equipped with a powerful and top-secret reconnaissance camera system known as DORIAN. But the program kept slipping in schedule and increasing in cost until, finally, it proved unaffordable for a Nixon administration fighting a costly war in Southeast Asia and trying to fund other major space programs. MOL was facing many challenges, including an identity crisis—what was it supposed to do and why did that matter?—and increasing criticism within the intelligence community.

Surprisingly, in early 1964, only a few months after MOL started, a military official whose name is unknown wrote an incredibly prescient memo to his bosses where he predicted that the MOL project was misguided, would come under outside criticism, and would eventually be canceled, all of which proved true. He also made the case that the greatest asset a human in space provided was their brain, and that operating a reconnaissance camera was better left to the robots. But like Cassandra, who was blessed with the ability to see the future and cursed to have nobody believe her, this officer in the reconnaissance program was apparently ignored. Five years later, MOL was canceled for most of the reasons he cited.

Whether that officer felt vindicated or just exasperated, we do not know.

The role of man in space, and MOL

Ever since the beginning of the space age, governments have labored to justify sending humans into space. The earliest justification was simple: international competition during the Cold War. The United States needed to put astronauts in space because the Soviets were putting cosmonauts in space. Those accomplishments served as symbolic indicators of military and technological capability.

Soon after these early efforts, American military leaders began to look for practical reasons to put military astronauts in space. The early military human spaceflight program had been given to NASA in 1958, and the Dyna Soar program that the Air Force pursued starting in the late 1950s was canceled at the end of 1963 due to expense and lack of a clear mission. When Dyna Soar was canceled, military officials believed that they had finally come up with a mission for military astronauts to perform in space: operating a powerful reconnaissance camera. This was a highly classified mission, so they sought to shroud it in a cover story, that the astronauts would perform experiments aboard a Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL)—after all, who could object to a “laboratory” in orbit?

But rather remarkably, the laboratory was not a cover story, but a reflection of the ambiguous ideas that military and intelligence officials had about the role of military astronauts. Not everybody agreed on what military astronauts should and could do in space. Some thought that military astronauts should perform clearly-defined tasks, whereas others believed that their role was to figure out what military astronauts could actually do and excel at in space.

MOL was to be developed by the National Reconnaissance Office’s West Coast office, which was publicly known as the Secretary of the Air Force Special Projects Office (SAFSP), based in Los Angeles. SAFSP was also secretly designated as the NRO’s “Program A.” Soon after MOL was approved for initial development, people at SAFSP wrote a lengthy draft memo—essentially a report—that outlined the purposes of the program. That memo was to be sent to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in Washington. If that draft memo still exists, it has not been declassified by the NRO. But before the long memo was sent to McNamara, an Air Force officer within the Los Angeles program office wrote his three-page assessment of it. The shorter memo was stamped “Top Secret” and titled “Notes on Draft Memorandum, ‘MOL Experiments,’” dated February 10, 1964. The author referred to the plan for a “Military Orbiting Laboratory”—either the writer made a mistake, or at least early in the program people were using “Military” instead of “Manned” to describe the program.

According to the anonymous author, the draft plan provided insights into the current level of development of the MOL concept. “These insights are not reassuring; indeed, they supply convincing evidence that the MOL, as presently conceived, will never get off the ground. The comments which follow outline the reasons for this conclusion.”

The author’s first objection was that “The Plan is Mission-Ridden.” He explained that “‘Operational Mission’ and ‘military laboratory’ are incompatible terms: the operational always drives out the research and development. Is the MOL a laboratory? Or is it an operational reconnaissance spacecraft? (Or a bomber?) If it is a laboratory, it must be planned as a laboratory and act as one. It cannot have operational assignments in ‘primary mission areas of … reconnaissance and surveillance.’”

“It cannot be categorized as capable of ‘many experiments which are not described yet which could …be accomplished when it is feasible to do so without degrading prime experiments.’” With a whiff of sarcasm, the author added that “A laboratory cannot be founded on a document which devotes 17 pages to the design of an operational reconnaissance system and 4 pages to ‘General Experiments.’ A laboratory is concerned with the acquisition of technical data; its experiments do not require operational ‘scenarios.’”

“The Plan Degraded the Role of the Astronaut/Scientist,” he wrote. “Gross emphasis is placed on man’s manipulative skill. Man becomes a pointer, not a thinker. He aligns and focuses; he handles yaw problems; he aims; he adjusts for image motion; he processes film. All of these tasks can be done better by machines and most of them can be automated. I see nothing about man as a judge, an integrator, a selector, or a scientist/engineer.”

“The Plan Proposes a Competition Which MOL Cannot Win. It is clear that machines will do everything that this plan proposes for MOL long before – and better than – MOL can do it. Is the competition resolution? MOL will lose. Is it selectivity? Again, MOL loses. Is it cost? Is it coverage? Response time? Repetition rate? No contest. MOL, as a Manned Reconnaissance Satellite, will be cancelled – either now, or as soon as any ‘outside’ group reviews it.”

He added that “the Plan Asperses the Very Experiments Which Could Sustain It.” For instance, the plan negated bioastronautics, or the study of the human body’s adaptation to spaceflight. The plan also proposed one military mission that remains sensitive to this day and was deleted when the document was declassified in 2015. Based upon other MOL documents with similar deletions, that mission was probably either photographing other satellites in orbit, or destroying them.

“The Plan Invites and Assures the Hostility of the US Intelligence Board, the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, and the Special Group. No scenario is required to illustrate this point. The reaction will be swift and incisive.”

The writer also objected to the organizational and security arrangements in the plan, which he claimed violated existing regulations. Although he did not clearly explain his objections, apparently the draft plan put the Director of the NRO in a secondary position with the Air Force in charge, but a DoD Directive made clear that any national reconnaissance program had to be led by the NRO Director, not the Air Force.

“I am well aware of the apprehension that the DoD cannot ‘sell’ a bona fide laboratory. I believe a bona fide military laboratory can be ‘sold,’” he wrote, underlining it for emphasis. “A wide variety of sensors and experiments belong in such a laboratory, along with a wide range of other things. No one is working on those ‘other things.’

The author ended with a rather devastating closing, referencing the Dyna Soar program that was canceled only a few months earlier after failing to justify its increasing costs. “We’d better start soon. The MOL can be salvaged, but it will take hard work. The hard work must start now, based on a totally new concept. Otherwise, we just finished planning DYNASOAR II.”

Although available records do not indicate if the MOL plan was substantially revised following the author’s warning memo, the MOL itself continued to be an operational reconnaissance system with few experiments. Various experiments originally planned for MOL, such as the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit, were pushed off MOL and either canceled completely or transferred to NASA. The role of the MOL astronauts did become that of “a pointer, not a thinker,” as the author warned. “He aligns and focuses; he handles yaw problems; he aims; he adjusts for image motion; he processes film.” And just as he added, “All of these tasks can be done better by machines and most of them can be automated,” he proved correct about that as well—one of the recommendations of an outside review group was to create an automated version of MOL, which undercut the need for astronauts even further (see “The measure of a man: Evaluating the role of astronauts in the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program,” The Space Review, March 19, 2018, Part 2, and Part 3.)

In 1966, 1967 and 1968, MOL’s schedule slipped and its cost increased (see “Blue suits and red ink: Budget overruns and schedule slips in the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program,” The Space Review, November 2, 2015.) And as the author of the memo noted, MOL started to come under increasing scrutiny by groups outside of the program. Although details are scarce and records have not been declassified, there is some evidence indicating that at least one outside review of MOL in the 1967–68 timeframe criticized its effectiveness from a technical standpoint. And as the memo author also noted, robotic reconnaissance systems were soon able to perform MOL’s job. They may not have been as good as MOL by 1969, but they were close, and it was clear that they would soon be better. In June 1969, MOL was canceled.

So who was this memo author? Michael Cassutt, who has written about the history of American astronauts, has long been interested in the organization and personalities in SAFSP. Cassutt thinks that the memo could have been written by one of three junior officers in SAFSP: Frank Buzard, Jack Martin, and Paul Worthman. All three were deeply involved in West Coast NRO projects, and all three had reputations for being skeptical about extravagant claims made about space hardware. Buzard had been working in this area since before the first launch of a CORONA reconnaissance satellite in 1959 (see “Sharp as a tack,” The Space Review, February 12, 2012). But without some corroborating data, it is impossible to know who the Cassandra was. What we do know is that his prediction was incredibly prescient: MOL got axed, and for exactly the reasons he foresaw in early 1964. But it took over five years and many hundreds of millions of dollars before it happened.

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