To some Pentagon planners, the gift seemed magnanimous in the extreme. "You've got a mandate," said an Assistant Secretary of Defense to a group of Air Force generals. "He's given you space." The men in uniform were inclined to argue that Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's decision to let them build a Manned Orbiting Laboratory was hardly as generous as all that. Space, they figure, has belonged to them all along. They have always maintained that it is merely an extension of the atmosphere a little higher and thinner, to be sure, but a proper place for Air Force operations.
With his MOL mandate, McNamara has given the Air Force a proper opportunity to prove its claims. The project will amount to a massive experiment checking on man's ability to function for long periods in space. And it will be a step toward demonstrating whether or not that functioning can have a military value to match its cost.
Delicate Tasks. The orbiting lab is still a drawing-board dream, and few details have been settled on for sure. It will be a pressurized cylinder, about 25 ft. long and 10 ft. in diameter approximately the size of a small house trailer. It will be attached to the blunt heat shield of one of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's two-man Gemini capsules, and it will be heaved aloft by a hefty Titan III rocket, which, with its two solid-fuel boosters, develops as much as 2,000,000 Ibs. of thrust.
Once in orbit, the astronauts riding the Gemini's cramped capsule will open a hatch in the heat shield and crawl into the lab, where efficient life-support equipment will let them safely shuck their cumbersome space suits. They will have plenty of room to move around, and by making due allowance for zero gravity, they will be able to perform elaborate and delicate tasks. After several weeks in the lab, they will return to the capsule and close the hatch in the heat shield. After detaching the MOL and leaving it in orbit, they will ignite their retrorockets and make their flaming descent.
Dead Dyna-Soar. About the same time that he gave MOL to the Air Force, McNamara killed Dyna-Soar, the winged, piloted space glider on which the Air Force has already spent $400 million, and was planning to spend many hundred million more. Even if Dyna-Soar succeeded in returning to earth on glowing wings, McNamara argued, it would do little to ad vance the military use of space. The glider would have been able to stay in orbit for only a few hours; it is not likely that its pilot would have learned anything not already known from NASA's Project Mercury and the X-15. McNamara is now convinced that controlled re-entry and landing can be investigated better by smaller, cheaper vehicles, steered by instruments.