The Curious Case of MOL’s Missing Mission

20 06 2018

For those interested in diving down a spaceflight rabbit hole, I here detail a key term hidden amongst thousands of declassified pages that hints at a defunct space station’s secret mission – one that might soon find new life given the renewed talk of a “Space Force.” …if it hasn’t already been resurrected, that is…

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Artist’s rendering of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, or MOL. (Credit: NRO)


Rediscovering the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory

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A MH-7 training pressure suit created for the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory program. (Credit: U.S. Air Force)

It all began with the discovery of a mysterious pair of blue pressure suits at a Cape Canaveral Air Force Station facility in 2005 – suits that didn’t exactly belong to any known NASA space program. Thus, the secretive military Manned Orbiting Laboratory of the 1960s, or MOL, was re-discovered as security officers ventured into a long-locked storage room in a facility known as the Launch Complex 5/6 museum. There, they recovered two MH-7 training suits worn by Air Force astronauts that never got a chance to fly to space (at least not with the Air Force; several went on to successful NASA careers).

Subsequently, in response to a FOIA request, the clandestine National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in July of 2015 declassified tens of thousands of pages of MOL program documents and a gallery of images. Truly, the database is a trove of information on the formerly-secret military reconnaissance space program that might’ve been.

Now, I should admit that I found most of the released information to be soberingly bureaucratic in nature, and because many have covered the generalities of MOL in the intervening few years at great length, instead of describing the overall program I wanted to drill inward and focus on an intriguing series of omissions in the MOL literature.

Quite simply, I found that the nigh-overwhelming information release was much more interesting with regard to what it didn’t reveal as opposed to what it did…

To Man, or Not to Man?

In the space community, there is something of a longstanding rift between the “human exploration” and the “robotic exploration” camps. The former cite the dynamic advantages of human beings as intelligent, adaptive tools of exploration, while the latter cite the woefully-heavy and expensive life-support requirements of the former as a justification to send robots instead.

The pro-robot folks point to the many scientific successes of robotic spacecraft, such as Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, and New Horizons, while the pro-astronaut types point to being able to share the human experience and context of exploration in a way that no robot can.

And so the argumentation goes.

This conflict was perhaps best pioneered in the case of MOL, which as a crewed station eventually lost out in mortal combat over government funding to the ever-increasing utility of spy satellites.

But, in my opinion, it’s in the justification for human occupants that MOL gets most interesting…

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Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), an evolution of the earlier “Blue Gemini” program, which was conceived to be an all-Air Force parallel of NASA’s Gemini efforts. (Credit: U.S. Air Force)

Redaction Points the Way

Standing more in the “pro-astronaut” camp (and as a former spaceflight “Crew Systems” manager/analyst), I like to think of myself as quite versed in the many legitimate justifications for crewed spaceflight. That’s exactly why I found myself surprised to see some of the human spaceflight mission sections of the MOL documents redacted… 55 years after the fact.

Admittedly, some (if not most) of the redaction found in the released documents relates to the optical performance of spy telescopes or the detection of enemy nuclear missile launches. I can easily recognize the tactical benefit of keeping some of those details under our hat, even to the present day.

However, neither of those have to do with crewed spaceflight, and it is the presence of additional redaction in the human context that began to lift my eyebrows.

For example, in the “Manned Orbiting Laboratory Technical Panel, First Preliminary Report” (3/17/1964), which was tasked with generating a series of space experiment proposals for MOL, the list of study areas (p. 2) reads as follows:

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This redacts something other than “reconnaissance and surveillance,” into which our traditional understanding of spy satellites and nuclear launch detection squarely sits. It is also something other than satellite logistics, maintenance, and repair – dynamic activities typically reserved for the “pro-astronaut” folks…

The curious redaction was expanded upon in, “PRELIMINARY TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN FOR THE MANNED ORBITING LABORATORY” (6/30/1964), a report which detailed manned experiment study areas (p. 6-8):

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…and it was further highlighted later in the same document during a description of Extra-Vehicular Activities (EVAs), more commonly known as “spacewalks” (p. 6-22):

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These, again, redact something other than the well-known and well-trodden justification for astronauts performing EVAs, such as in-space construction, repair, rescue, etc.

Therefore, the question that took root in my mind was simply this:

“If the MOL concept was indeed rendered obsolete by spy satellite technology of the late 1960s, what concept for military human spaceflight is so good that it remains classified today – more than a half-century later?”

As fate would have it, there is at least one bread-crumb hiding within the thousands of pages of material that suggests an answer…

An Idea So Good…

Idling on a single table in one of hundreds of documents amidst the 20,000+ pages included in the whole of the NRO FOIA release on MOL stands a single, critical term.

On Table 1 of the “PRELIMINARY TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN (PTDP) FOR THE MOL PROGRAM” (3/10/1964), eight rows down on the right-side column, is the word, “SAINT” :

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Now, MIDAS – the term found one row up from SAINT – is something I had heard of before, relating to the detection of Soviet nuclear missile launches. As MOL was a secret reconnaissance platform, I found mention of MIDAS entirely unsurprising, and from the human spaceflight perspective, entirely irrelevant.

But what about SAINT?

A re-scan of the NRO documents finds the term turning up only one other time – in a summary document written after MOL’s cancellation, “History of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) Program” (2/1/1970):

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SAINT, then, appeared to be – at least in part – an openly-acknowledged Air Force military space program of some sort, along with Blue (Air Force) Gemini, which was the vehicle used to get to-and-from MOL.

But “Saint” in this instance wasn’t capitalized. So, what sort of space program was it?

SAINT Revelations

A literature search of Air Force planning documents from the mid-1960s turns up the following section on SAINT, excerpted from a June, 1966 document from the USAF Historical Division Liason Office, entitled, “The Air Force in Space. Fiscal Year 1962,” which identified SAINT as an acronym for Satellite Inspector.

(p. 19):

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(pp. 93):

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SAINT here is painted with somewhat vague but intentional strokes, using phrases like,“satellite capture and neutralization.”

However, SAINT is clearly described as a satellite (i.e., robotic) research and development program. Did MOL missions really include a human parallel to “satellite interception and neutralization” as suggested in Table 1 of the 1964 technical document?

When re-scanning the NRO documents for a related SAINT term, “inspection,” one manages to turn up one additional, fruitful mention, again in the MOL summary/history document, “History of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) Program” (2/1/1970):

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Mission (1) as described here casts SAINT in a darker, more aggressive light. Gone are the euphemisms like, “neutralization.”

Instead, we have, “Inspection and destruction of hostile satellites.”

Now, reviewing the original redacted sections above in the context of the Air Force SAINT program, one begins to assemble a clearer picture of one possibility for what I like to call this “missing” human mission.

…and while many are quick to characterize MOL as a relic of a “by-gone era,” this may also – due perhaps especially to its modern redaction – serve as a glimpse into our own human spaceflight future.

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Test subject Fred Spross, Crew Systems Division, wears the Gemini 9 configured extravehicular spacesuit assembly. The legs are covered with Chromel R, which is a cloth woven from stainless steel fibers, used to protect the astronaut and suit from the hot exhaust thrust of the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit, which was developed by the USAF for the MOL program. (Credit: NASA, Image ID:S66-33167)

Astronaut SAINTs

If viewing the MOL program as earmarking astronauts as human satellite inspectors, (might we refer to them as Astronaut SAINTs?), ancillary details of the MOL documentation detritus suddenly begin to fall into place.

For example, in the report, “PRELIMINARY TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN FOR THE MANNED ORBITING LABORATORY” (6/30/1964), mentioned earlier, look to the table titled, “Primary Experiments – Assessment of Man’s Utility,” and consider that the redacted position of experiment P-7 (“Inspection”?) is located right after P-6, “Extravehicular Activity.” That would make absolute sense from a planning perspective.

One has to learn how to walk before one can run, after all.

Consider also that the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit (AMU), seen above – a longer-range version of the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) that would be used by NASA Shuttle astronauts – was developed by the Air Force for the MOL program.

Why might military astronauts need to travel some distance from their station if via umbilical tether they can reach and repair any portion of the MOL station, itself? Signs point to SAINT.

Consider also another of the redacted sections considered above in report,”Manned Orbiting Laboratory Technical Panel, First Preliminary Report” (3/17/1964), in the section describing experiment “general areas.” The redaction eliminates an entire line but then leaves two words before a semicolon denoting the next section: “…satellite survivability.” Well, needless to say this would certainly follow sensibly after something like, “satellite inspection, satellite neutralization/destruction, and…”

Finally, note that Table 1 of the “PRELIMINARY TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN (PTDP) FOR THE MOL PROGRAM” (3/10/1964), in which I first discovered the mention of SAINT, appears to be ordered alphabetically. Perhaps coincidentally, the redacted term associated with SAINT sits between E (ELINT) and M (Meteorology).

“Inspection” fits there quite nicely.

Indeed, if we return to the Air Force history document, “The Air Force in Space. Fiscal Year 1962,” we find on page 95 that an intersection between NASA’s manned Gemini program and SAINT development was explored but – at least openly – nebulously dismissed based on mission requirements:

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I should point out that this is several years prior to the design and creation of the Air Force’s modified Gemini-B spacecraft, which may well have addressed some of these issues.

All this weighed together, it certainly seems like serious planning was given to human anti-satellite (ASAT) operations in the 1960s, and for reasons unknown, knowledge of this reality remains largely and intentionally obscured today. This sort of activity would have been an extraordinary venture for human spaceflight – far riskier than anything ever attempted in human extravehicular activities, aside from, perhaps, moonwalkers venturing a great distance from their lunar lander via rover.

Curiously, I discovered after all of this poking around that famed astronaut and astronaut-wrangler Deke Slayton may have quietly let the Astronaut-SAINT-cat out of the bag in his 1994 autobiography when he opined that the Air Force may have developed the AMU because, “they thought they might have the chance to inspect somebody else’s satellites.”

His choice usage of the word, “inspect,” suggests he might have known just a little bit more about plans for Astronaut SAINTs than he was letting on.

A Hint of Things to Come?

So, why might the proposition of Astronaut SAINTs remain classified today?

One is forced to consider the obvious possibility that it remains classified because such a role for future military astronauts is still on the table. Given the realities of the infamous 2007 Chinese ASAT test along with the recent Russian test of the PL19/Nudol direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon, this may not be surprising.

Further, the timing of the release and redaction, in 2015, might be noteworthy. As it happens, Russia launched its own “satellite-fixer/satellite-killer” satellite in 2014, which practiced sophisticated satellite maneuvering and rendezvous maneuvers. This may have (rightfully) spooked U.S. defense strategists into clamping down on all mention of SAINT.

…and, with the recent White House push both for increased commercialization of space as well as for a dedicated Space Force to go along with it, it is entirely possible that in gazing between the lines of these MOL documents we are also glimpsing a vision of military space activities that may yet come to pass.

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Chinese satellite makes a move

11 11 2010

According to a story reported yesterday by the Associated Press, China has demonstrated nimble maneuvering of its satellites in orbit, a feat few other nations have been able to achieve.

The rendezvous between two of its orbiting craft, which occurred on August 19 and was not declared by China but was instead observed by international tracking stations, has set off alarm in some circles.  This capability must be employed by China in order to successfully launch and dock with their future proposed space laboratories, yet it may also double as the ability to intercept and sabotage enemy satellites and spacecraft.

Regardless of the potential military applications, the certain reality is that China’s space program is moving ahead at a determined pace.  This demonstration of their growing space capabilities is another reinforcement of just how serious they are about becoming a player in the future utilization of space.








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