The 1959 launch of Sputnik instantly put the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union into high gear. The role of the military in space suddenly became a topic of great interest for both the world’s superpowers. Though separated by the metaphorical iron curtain, both sides announced plans for military space stations in the early 1960s. The USSR’s chief missile and rocket designer, Vladmir Chelomei depended on a challenge of some kind from the US to obtain the go-ahead for the design of a Soviet military space station.
US Strike First - MOL
In December 1963, newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson announced that the U.S. would cancel design of the Dyna-Soar mini shuttle in favor of developing a Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL). In August 1965, President Johnson was reluctant, but he committed to beginning the MOL program with the first launch to take place at the end of 1968. The United States Air Force considered the MOL project “one of the most significant political decisions of the space age”.
The Russians Respond - Almaz
American press accounts of impressive space station designs gave Chelomei everything he needed to get the funding for a Soviet response. On October 27, 1965, two months after President Johnson’s endorsement of the MOL, the Ministry of General Machine Building, which oversaw the Soviet space industry, approved Almaz. It was to be used by the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Soviet Army. The goal of Almaz was to have a three person crew and an operational life of one to two years. Its specifications would be determined by the capabilities of the Proton rocket. Originally, it was designed to carry its own reentry capsule with room for three cosmonauts. This vehicle, the VA as abbreviated in Russian, would allow launching the station with the crew right on board. To access the lab, the crew would go through a special hatch in the heat shield at the bottom of the return vehicle capsule. The station was equipped with a 23mm cannon for self defense.
Failures and Success
The first Almaz launch was on 3rd of April 1973. It was to wait in orbit until the Soyuz carrying the cosmonauts could be launched during a specified launch window. But the station lost its line-of-sight contact with Soviet ground control. The orbiter began tumbling instead of maintaining a nose first orientation. Apparently, a rupture in the hull caused a loss of pressure and led to continuous firing of the low-thrust stabilizing engines, causing the tumbling. The first successful Almaz launch took place on June 24, 1974. The two cosmonauts stayed for 14 days before returning to Earth. The final mission was launched in June 1976 and ended with the return of the two-man crew in August. Another attempt was made to man the station in October 1976, but docking failed, and the crew landed after two days in space.
The Project That Never Lifted Off
On the American side, neither NASA nor the Department of Defense was very enthusiastic about the MOL. NASA was immersed in its plans for sending astronauts to the moon, and the DoD was skeptical as to the usefulness of military personnel in space. The program was cancelled in 1969 after one unmanned launch. It went from being the announcement that spurred the Soviets to design and launch a space station to being a footnote in the history of the space race.
In February 2008, the PBS series Nova aired a program titled “Astrospies” focusing on MOL. While there have been a few fairly detailed books and magazine articles over the past 40 years, for whatever reason, the public was not fed much information about the program. According to NOVA, potential military astronauts were being evaluated for inclusion in the program in 1964 and were officially selected as astronauts a year later. During that year, it is believed that the astronauts were trained in conducting scientific experiments that would take place in the space laboratory.
However, the focus of MOL shifted from being an experiment laboratory to being a reconnaissance mission. By the late 1960s, reconnaissance experts concluded that MOL’s optics would be hurt, and not helped by having astronauts on-board. The studies - if any - that took place at that time to confirm this remain classified or distribution limited.
While there were some claims in the NOVA television program that MOL was finally canceled due to competition from another reconnaissance program, the KH-11 KENNAN, MOL was actually canceled two years before KH-11 was approved. The real reasons MOL was canceled were its high cost, a schedule that kept slipping, and inadequate definition of its benefits.