THIS USED TO BE THE FUTURE: The Manned Orbiting Laboratory, or The USAF gets screwed by NASA again...

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Happy October, everybody. Here's a little video from Dan Roam's "Deep Cold" website, and a lot more information and video under the jump:

Last month I told you about how NASA screwed the USAF out of their super-cool X-20 project, in the process setting back hypersonic research by a decade, and condemning themselves to use their halfassed space shuttle for a generation. This was not the last time NASA went crying to mama (Congress) to complain about their mean older brother.

Surprisingly undaunted by the cancellation of the X-20 project - so undaunted that I suspect the Air Force might have been realizing the inherent shortcomings of space planes, and getting cold feet - they just moved immediately on to their next space project:

The "Manned Orbiting Lab" - or MOL for short - was a two-manned disposable space station with a 40 day life span. It was surprisngly clever, efficient, and cost-effective, relying almost entirely on off-the-shelf technology, much of which NASA had already cast off. Officially, publicly, the MOL project was for scientific research, the usual "what's weightlessnes like for spiders? Pretty bad. Ok, what's it like for gibbons, also pretty bad. Ok, what's it like for different kinds of spiders? Still pretty bad." kind of research that scientists wax overly-passionatley about in order to hide the fact that it's all kind of worthless. In private, however, the MOL was a cold war marvel, a spy station!

Here's a cutaway view: You'll notice the gemini capsule on the top there, and you'll notice from the video that this picture keeps half the MOL out of frame - it's roughly twice as long as shown here, with everything below the antennas deliberately obscured. This confounded me as a kid. Reading books about it, looking at diagrams, the stuff in the lower half of the station was generally nebulously described as "Life Support" or "Scientific Equipment" or "Food supplies" or "Waste storage" or what have you, but most books disagreed on the nature of this area, which was my first indicator that something was up. Some sources simply said that the design was never finished for this area since the project was abandoned.

It nagged at me in an OCD kind of way. A year or two, I saw an unfrackingbelievably great NOVA documentary on the subject that you can find out moe about here but suffice it to say that that the nature of that lower half was deliberately obscured: it was a telescope. A massive, huge telescope in the same range as Hubble, but - here's the cool spy part - it pointed DOWN, not up. At earth, not space.

The plan: A MOL was basically a superattenuated upper stage for a very heavy ICBM, and with a Gemini Capsule on the front end. It'd be launched in to space from Vandenberg AFB all-in-one, with the Astrospies (! How cool is that!) in the Gemini, and then once in orbit, the spies would climb through a hatch in the back of the capsule, through a tunnel, and in to the MOL, and they'd spend 40 days in orbit "Doing scientific research" that mostly involved taking hyper-detailed photos of the Soviet Union from space. Wow! In order to spend as much time on target above the USSR, the MOLs would always be launched in to a circum-polar orbit, and not an equatorial one. At the end of their time in space, they'd clamber back in to the Gemini, ride it back to earth while abandoning the station, and be picked up by the Navy. The MOL itself would burn up in the atmosphere, leaving no evidence. They'd intended to launch a series of these, one every 10 months or so.

How cool is that? Answer: very cool.

Of course this put the USAF at a disadvantage, since NASA was already pushing for it's own space station - Skylab - which incorperated most of the "How does space affect little bits of yarn?" experiments the USAF claimed to want to do, and it wasn't like the Air Force could come clean and say "While you're snoozing in your widdle jammies, Hogarth, back in Washington we're wide awake and worried! Why? Because everyone wants what we have, Hogarth! Everyone!" They couldn't admit what they were doing, since it was by nature a covert op, and everybody loooooooooooved NASA in those days. Once again, it devolved in to a NASA/USAF turf war, and once again, the AIr Force was happy to let NASA have the research end of things, but I suspect NASA had already begin to suspect that they sucked, and felt very nervous about someone else having their own space program. Once again, Congress backed the Civilian agency over the military one, and that was that. Officialy, the scientific MOL hoo-hah was said to be redundant, what with the Skylab program coming up. Covertly, the new generation of unmanned spy satellites were producing pretty amazing images of the USSR with far less cost and risk of life. As a consession, the 7 MOL astronauts were transfered to NASA.
Tons of info online here

The gag is that the Soviets already had their own Spy Space Stations, called Almaz, which were hiding in plain sight pretending to be Salyut space stations. One of them was even armed, in clear violation of international treaties. I mention this not so much a case of me complaining about them lying commies, as simply that it was cool, and I'm jealous.

The Gemini on the nose was also super-attenuated. They chopped out most of the Service Module so they could put in the tunnel connecting it to the MOL itself. As a result it had only about a 14-hour life span. It was called the "Blue Gemini" (Because the Air Force wears Blue, y'see) Here's some Dan Roam animation of it.

This is a much bigger flight of fancy that Mr. Roam usually takes. The spacecraft was never designed to dock with orbital weapons platforms, and it would have been fairly useless even if it could, since it only had a 14-hour life space once it cast off from the station. If you want to launch missiles at another country, there are far less complicated and more practical ways to do it than we see here. But of course he's just trying to look cool, not be accurate in this one, so I forgive him.

What's intriguing about the Blue Gemini is that the USAF reasoned that it was a highly-successful spacecraft that was known to work very well and be safe within some certain parameters. Taking the frame and modifying it to work with their space station was not only practical, it was cheap and safe as well. It made sense not to throw away something they already knew worked. To that end, they even borrowed an old used Gemini from NASA and test-launched it themselves to get some first-hand info.

Again, what makes this project interesting was that it wasn't yet another NASA paper study, it was actually underway. They'd build a massive, custom-designed launch pad at Vandenberg to launch the things, they built a full-scale mock up and launched it in to orbing in april of '69, and had the project not been killed when it was, they had two unmanned-but-fully-functional MOLs that would have gone up the next year. The first manned launch was scheduled for February of '72, and the final schedualed launch of the program was intended for '75, though that wasn't intended to be the end of the program, just as far as they bothered to plan before it was killed.

Much of the tech involved in those massive telescopes was ultimately plowshared (Covertly) in to Hubble.

To be honest, aside from the inherently sexy nature of the project, I'm kind of up-in-the-air about whether this was a good decision or not. On the one hand, clearly spy satellites do the job cheaper/faster/better, but on the other hand the Air Force *should* have regular manned access to space for obvious reasons. Though this project was ultimately kind of redundant, I can't help but think that it would have yielded a lot of first-hand info about living and working in space that would have been fundamentally different than the NASA equivalent, and of course competition is always a good thing. I certainly understand NASA's skittishness, but look at it this was: If we had TWO space programs, then if NASA screwed up, the USAF could go out and rescue them.

Sometimes redundancy is a good thing.

(Dan Roam's Deep Cold Site is here