Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Jones for MOL #1: When is a MOL not a MOL?

This blog post is another of my attempts to correct the use of incorrect nomenclature in the historical record, especially on the Internet. (Yes, I know: the very epitome of a futile gesture.) My topic this time is the near-total identification of the generic title “manned orbiting laboratory” with the 1963-1969 project of the U.S. Air Force, “Manned Orbiting Laboratory”. It is an obvious and forgivable conflation, rendered irrelevant by the passage of time and moot by our current politically correct avoidance of such a gender-specific identifier.

In December 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara authorized the development of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) by the U.S. Air Force, to replace the X-20 Dyna Soar project which he was simultaneously cancelling. The X-20 was an attempt by the Air Force to build a manned orbital glider for research leading to the development of future manned military aerospace vehicles.[i]  [I typed Arabic numerals, but blogger made them into Roman numerals, and I don't know how to change them back.]

The USAF had started low-level studies of a “Military Test Space Station” (MTSS) in 1958. In June 1962, the MTSS studies morphed into an early design for a “Manned Orbital Development Station” (MODS), which would see a Gemini capsule carrying two astronauts mounted atop a cylindrical pressurized habitat containing experiments, all to be launched using the new Titan 3 rocket.[ii] [Note added Aug. 25, 2012: In a high-level memo dated Nov. 30, 1963, the project was referred to as the "Orbital Military Test Module" but no acronym, such as OMTM was not used (Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense, Subject: Evaluation of an Orbital Military Test Module, Nov. 30, 1963, from Director of Defense Research and Engineering Harold Brown). I received a copy of this memo from Dr. Dwayne Day in 2008, but the reproduction is of poor quality, so I didn't struggle through it until today.]

An official 1967 U.S. Air Force rendition of the
Manned Orbiting Laboratory in orbit (Credit: U.S. Air Force)
President Lyndon Johnson announced the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program on Aug. 25, 1965.[iii] As president, his pronouncements were by definition authoritative: in July 1964, when he publically disclosed the top-secret high-speed, high-altitude interceptor and spy plane designated the RS-71, he identified it as “SR-71” at the urging of Gen. Curtis LeMay, Air Force Chief of Staff, and the designation stuck.[iv] By this date, MOL had morphed again, becoming a reconnaissance testbed instead of a general purpose space laboratory.[v]

The Air Force may have decided not to call MOL a “station” because it was intended to be a single-use disposable vehicle, not a reusable orbiting station able to accommodate new crews delivered by fresh Gemini capsules.

The 1960 concept for a "manned orbiting laboratory" which has
no relationship to the Air Force's MOL. Perhaps the
confusion is fueled by the Gemini-like outline of the
winged resupply vehicle in the lower right.
(Credit: NASA, supposedly)
A 1962 image of Dick Tracy's Magnetic Space Coupe.
Note the resemblance to the 1960 concept.
(Credit: Dick Tracy Museum)
My agitation is traceable to a specific picture and its citation. Just Google “’manned orbiting laboratory’ 1960” and the first image retrieved is an artist’s concept of a manned orbiting laboratory from the 1960s. It clearly has no resemblance to the MOL except its cylindrical shape, yet it has been cited by authoritative sources as “A 1960 conceptual drawing of the [U.S. Air Force’s] Manned Orbiting Laboratory…[vi] and credited to NASA. In fact, it looks more like Dick Tracy’s “Magnetic Space Coupe” to me.[vii] I maintain that the image is not “that” MOL, but instead a 1960 concept for a non-military “manned orbiting laboratory”, three years before the Air Force co-opted that generic title and forever re-branded it.

If not “manned orbiting laboratory” then what might the Air Force have named its project instead?  An answer comes from Roald Sagdeev, former director of the Space Research Institute in Moscow, who wrote in his autobiography[viii] that the Americans were planning a “military orbiting laboratory”. Why didn’t the Air Force choose that version of the name, instead of the generic version? The initials could even have been the same!  Sagdeev mentioned this in connection with his visit to the manufacturer of the Soviet counterpart to MOL, the “Almaz” space station, in autumn 1973, a full four years after MOL was cancelled. He might have learned this name from American publications, because the Associated Press (AP) news service had dabbled with calling MOL the “Military Orbiting Laboratory” in 1965. This may not have originated with the AP, however: in April they were apparently quoting Gen. Joseph Bleymaier,[ix] a director of the MOL program;[x] in June, the source might well have been Vice President Hubert Humphrey.[xi] After one final try in Dec. 1965, even the AP seems to have given up on such unrewarded specificity.[xii]

Perhaps the specificity was contrary to Air Force interests. The service seems to have gone to some lengths to downplay the military aspects of MOL[xiii] in part due to international considerations,[xiv] and probably welcomed the ambiguity of its chosen title as providing some plausible deniability.

NASA found itself having to deal with the name-game early on. A 1963-1966 contractor study produced a concept for a large space station christened the “Manned Orbiting Research Laboratory” (MORL)[xv] which might have omitted the redundant “research” (after all, doesn’t “laboratory” imply “research”?) had the Air Force not pre-empted the simpler name.

Having pre-empted the generic name, MOL seems to have been unable to enforce it consistently. In September 1965, the New Republic described the defensive requirements of “manned orbital laboratories”.[xvi] Even before Johnson’s announcement, the Goodyear Aerospace Company reported[xvii] that its work developing an inflatable external transfer tunnel did not indicate that the “Manned Orbital Laboratory” project would actually utilize it.

This distinction without a difference--“orbital” instead of “orbiting”--is still present to this day. The Facebook[xviii] article on MOL gives its name as “Manned Orbital Laboratory”, and cites the Wikipedia page using the same name. However, the Wikipedia[xix] page is titled “Manned Orbiting Laboratory”, but its URL indeed includes the designator “Manned_Orbital_Laboratory”, suggesting that the Wikipedia page was revised for historical correctness, apparently after the Facebook page was created.

[Aug. 25, 2012: edited to correct a typo and add a newly-found bit of information.]

[i] Day, Dwayne A., “The Blue Gemini Blues”, The Space Review, Monday, Mar. 20, 2006, (accessed 28 July 2012).
[ii] Day, Dwayne A., “The Blue Gemini Blues”, The Space Review, Monday, Mar. 20, 2006, (accessed 28 July 2012).
[iii] History of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, (accessed 23 Feb. 2011).
[iv] Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, (accessed 28 July 2012).
[v] Day, Dwayne A., “All along the watchtower”, The Space Review, Monday, Feb. 11, 2008, (accessed 28 July 2012).
[vi] The image is online at “Suits for Space Spies”, the NASA webpage on the discovery of MOL space suits in a forgotten Cape Canaveral outbuilding, (accessed 28 July 2012). It is also in Launius, Roger D., Space Stations, Base Camps to the Stars (NASA: Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky & Konecky, 2003 by arrangement with Smithsonian Books), p. 67.
[viii] Sagdeev, Roald Z., The Making of a Soviet Scientist (New York: John A. Wiley and Sons, 1994), p. 206.
[ix] “Air Force to Tab Spacemen for MOL”, the Associated Press, in Manitowoc [Wis.] Herald-Times, Wed., Apr. 14, 1965, Two Rivers Reporter, p. T.7 (, accessed 25 July 2012).
[x] Gen. Joseph S. Bleymaier, Space Systems Division deputy commander for manned systems, in “MOL Men Will Train at Brooks”, by Jerry Lochbaum, San Antonio Express, Thursday, Nov. 19, 1964, p. 1 & 16, (accessed 28 Feb. 2009).
[xi] “Orbiting Lab Eyed”, the Associated Press, in Register And Post-Herald, Beckley, W. Va., Saturday morning, June 26, 1965, p. 2 (, accessed 25 July 2012).
[xii] “Military Space Use Is Opened”, the Associated Press, in The Paris [Texas] News, Friday afternoon, Dec. 17, 1965, p. 1 (, accessed 25 July 2012).
[xiii] Evans, Ben, “Conquest of 'The High Ground'”,, Dec. 30, 2005, (accessed 25 Feb 2006).
[xiv] Cited in Fink, Donald E., “CIA Control Bid Slowed Decision on MOL”, Aviation Week & Space Technology, Sep. 20, 1965, p. 21.
[xv] Gatland, Kenneth, Manned Spacecraft, The Pocket Encyclopedia of Spaceflight in Colour (London: Blandford Press Ltd., 1967, 1971), p. 240.
[xvi] Senter, R.D., “Military moves into space; manned orbital laboratories”. New Repub 153; 11-13, Sep. 11, 1965.
[xvii] Expandable Gemini to MOL Transfer Tunnel, Fourth Bimonthly Report, Goodyear Aerospace, June 30, 1965,;topic=23864.0;attach=261549 (accessed 28 July 2012).
[xviii] Manned Orbital Laboratory interest page, Facebook, (accessed 28 July 2012).
[xix] Manned Orbiting Laboratory, (accessed 28 July 2012).


  1. John, I'm interested the issue of: why the generic "manned" instead of the more specific "military?" Do you think that this is a chapter in we might call the history of modern "dual use" technologies (this term, as far as I know, is a military term for things that can be leveraged as "public" as well as "military" assets)? By using "manned" they could not just engage in plausible deniability but they could categorize the project in a more flexible way for the purposes of funding, congressional support, or whatever? I and another of my colleagues are very interested in the history of dual use technology culture, so I'm wondering what you think about that. Thanks for your thoughts on this.

    1. Valerie, the "manned" part of MOL probably descended from the "manned" part of MODS. In those early days of the space age, there still was not much difference between the military and civilian space programs (in practice at least), and the USAF was pushing hard for a manned component. Support for manned spaceflight in and by the USAF has waxed and waned over the decades, sometimes quickly, and MOL was the last big push for manned space operations, even though the final version of MOL was in direct competition with the unmanned spy satellite capability then reaching maturity. In retrospect, MOL seems doomed to failure. Maybe a future blog post will show illustrations of MOL concepts from before 1965 and earlier, when it really was a manned space station to evaluate the usefulness of man in military space operations, and after 1965, when it was most assuredly a reconnaissance platform. Essentially, its length almost doubled with the addition of the KH-10 DORIAN telescope as the primary MOL payload. Then the "manned" part was under direct and frequent challenge because having men bouncing around in the cabin jiggled the telescope and reduced its resoultion.


Please feel free to suggest topics or comment on anything. Let's keep it on topic, and cite your sources whenever possible!