Manned Orbiting Laboratory

Manned Orbiting Laboratory
Manned Orbiting Laboratory
Gemini reentry capsule separates from the orbiting MOL
A 1967 conceptual drawing of the Gemini B reentry capsule separating from the MOL at the end of a mission
Station statistics
Crew 2
Mission status Cancelled
Mass 31,910 pounds (14,470 kg)
Length 71.9 feet (21.9 m)
Diameter 10.0 feet (3.05 m)
Pressurised volume 400 cubic feet (11.3 m3)
Orbital inclination polar or sun synchronous orbit
Days in orbit 40 days
Vertical model showing sections of the MOL and Gemini B capsule
Configuration of the Manned Orbital Laboratory
MOL test launch OPS 0855, Nov. 3, 1966 from Cape Canaveral, FL. (USAF)
14 of the 17 MOL astronauts:
Top row L-R: Herres, Hartsfield, Overmyer, Fullerton, Crippen, Peterson, Bobko, Abrahamson.
Bottom Row L-R: Finley, Lawyer, Taylor, Crews, Neubeck, Truly (USAF)

The Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), originally referred to as the Manned Orbital Laboratory, was part of the United States Air Force's manned spaceflight program, a successor to the cancelled Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar military reconnaissance space plane project. The project was developed from several early Air Force and NASA concepts of manned space stations to be used for reconnaissance purposes. MOL evolved into a single-use laboratory, with which crews would be launched on 40-day missions and return to Earth using a Gemini B spacecraft, derived from NASA's Gemini program.

The MOL program was announced to the public on December 10, 1963, as a manned platform to prove the utility of man in space for military missions. Astronauts selected for the program were later told of the reconnaissance mission for the program.[1] The contractor for the MOL was the Douglas Aircraft Company. The Gemini B was externally similar to NASA's Gemini spacecraft, although it underwent several modifications, including the addition of a circular hatch through the heat shield, which allowed passage between the spacecraft and the laboratory.

MOL was cancelled in 1969, during the height of the Apollo program, when it was shown that unmanned reconnaissance satellites could achieve the same objectives much more cost-effectively. U.S. space station development was instead pursued with the civillian NASA Skylab (Apollo Applications Program) which flew in the mid-1970s.

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union launched several Almaz military space stations, very similar to the MOL in intent, but cancelled the military program in 1977.



There was one test flight of an MOL mockup that was built from a Titan II propellant tank. The Gemini 2 spacecraft was re-flown on a 33-minute sub-orbital test flight. After the Gemini was separated for its sub-orbital reentry, the MOL mockup continued on into orbit and released three satellites. A hatch was installed in the Gemini 2 heat shield to provide access to the MOL and was tested in the sub-orbital reentry. The test flight was launched by the USAF on November 3, 1966 at 13:50:42 UTC on launch vehicle Titan IIIC-9 from LC-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The Gemini 2-MOL space capsule was recovered near Ascension Island in the South Atlantic by the USS La Salle.

The MOL was planned to use a helium-oxygen atmosphere. It used a Gemini B spacecraft as a reentry vehicle. The crew were to be launched with the Gemini B and MOL, and returned to Earth in the Gemini B. They would conduct up to 40 days of military reconnaissance using large optics, cameras, and side-looking radar.

In response to the announcement of the MOL, the USSR commissioned the development of its own military space station, Almaz. Three Almaz space stations flew as Salyut space stations.[2][3][4]

In 2005, two MH-7 training space suits from the MOL program were discovered in a locked room in the Launch Complex 5/6 museum on Cape Canaveral.[5]

MOL astronauts

  • MOL Group 2 - June 1966
    • Karol J. Bobko (Air Force) (pilot: STS-6; commander: STS-51-D. STS-51-J)
    • Robert L. Crippen (Navy) (pilot:STS-1; commander: STS-7, STS-41C, STS-41G) (Director: Kennedy Space Center)
    • Charles G. Fullerton (Air Force) (pilot: Space Shuttle Enterprise ALT #1, STS-3; commander: STS-51-F)
    • Henry W. Hartsfield, Jr. (Air Force) (pilot: STS-4; commander: STS-41-D, STS-61-A) (Director: Human Exploration and Development of Space Independent Assurance)
    • Robert F. Overmyer (Marine Corps) (pilot: STS-5; commander: STS-51-B)
  • MOL Group 3 - June 1967
    • James A. Abrahamson (Air Force) (Director: Strategic Defense Initiative)
    • Robert T. Herres (Air Force) (Vice Chairman: Joint Chiefs of Staff)
    • Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. (Air Force) (killed in training accident, December 1967)
    • Donald H. Peterson (Air Force) (mission specialist: STS-6)

MOL flight schedule


  • 1966 November 3 - MOL mockup - refurbished Gemini 2 capsule launched unmanned


  • 1970 December 1 - MOL 1 - First unmanned Gemini-B/Titan 3M qualification flight (Gemini-B flown alone, without an active MOL).
  • 1971 June 1 - MOL 2 - Second unmanned Gemini-B/Titan 3M qualification flight (Gemini-B flown alone, without an active MOL).
  • 1972 February 1 - MOL 3 - A crew of two (James M. Taylor, Albert H. Crews) would have spent thirty days in orbit.
  • 1972 November 1 - MOL 4 - Second manned mission.
  • 1973 August 1 - MOL 5 - Third manned mission.
  • 1974 May 1 - MOL 6 - Fourth manned MOL mission. All Navy crew composed of Richard H. Truly and Robert Crippen.
  • 1975 February 1 - MOL 7 - Fifth manned MOL.

Operational MOLs were to be launched on Titan IIIM rockets from SLC-6 at Vandenberg AFB, California and LC-40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.[citation needed]


Starting in 1965 a large optical system was added to the spacecraft for military reconnaissance. This camera system was codenamed "Dorian" and given the designation KH-10. The project was canceled on June 10, 1969 before any operational flights occurred.

The KH-10 intended for the MOL program was succeeded by the unmanned KH-11 Kennan, which launched in 1976 as the Soviet Union was winding down its manned space reconnaissance program. The KH-11 achieved the goal of 3-inch (76 mm) imaging resolution[6] and introduced video transmission of images back to Earth.[1]


The first launch of the MOL was scheduled for December 15, 1969, but was pushed back to the fall of 1971. The program was canceled by Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird in 1969 after the estimated cost of the program had risen in excess of 1 billion dollars, and had already spent $300 million. It was determined the capabilities of unmanned spy satellites met or exceeded the capabilities of manned MOL missions. There were 14 MOL astronauts in the program when it was canceled, and NASA offered those under 35 years of age the opportunity to transfer to the NASA astronaut program. Seven of the 14 MOL astronauts were younger than 35 and took the offer: Richard H. Truly who later became the NASA Administrator, Karol J. Bobko, Robert Crippen, C. Gordon Fullerton, Henry W. Hartsfield, Robert F. Overmyer, and Donald Peterson. All eventually flew on the Space Shuttle.

The Gemini 2 capsule used in the only flight of the MOL program is on display at the Air Force Space & Missile Museum on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.[7] A test article at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio is the Gemini B spacecraft (sometimes confused with Blue Gemini). It is recognized by its distinctive "US Air Force" written on the side, and the circular hatch cut through the heat shield.[8]


  • Crew: 2
  • Maximum duration: 40 days
  • Orbit: Sun synchronous or polar
  • Length: 21.92 m
  • Diameter: 3.05 m
  • Cabin Volume: 11.3 m³
  • Mass: 14,476 kilograms (31,910 lb)
  • Payload: 2,700 kilograms (6,000 lb)
  • Power: fuel cells or solar cells
  • RCS system: N2O4/MMH


See also


  1. ^ a b "NOVA: Astrospies". PBS. Retrieved October 13, 2011. 
  2. ^ Almaz military stations on Russian Space Web, Accessed: February 12, 2011.
  3. ^ Almaz military stations on Encyclopedia Astronautica, Accessed: February 12, 2011
  4. ^ Almaz Military Space Station Program, Accessed: February 12, 2011.
  5. ^ "Suits for Space Spies", Accessed: February 12, 2011.
  6. ^ The optical system was able to resolve objects on the ground as small as 76 mm in diameter from the vantage point of Earth orbit.
  7. ^ Hall Displays Air Force Space Museum, Accessed: February 12, 2011,
  8. ^ Gemini-B Spacecraft, Accessed: February 12, 2011.

External links

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