Manned Orbital Laboratory–The Story of a Hero and Astronaut



John Jaksich


The Cold War era is a specific time period that some of us remember as the launch of the space age.  However, for some, it heralded an era of equal rights; especially civil rights.  As someone who grew-up during the 1960s, I can attest to some of the goodness which was being felt, but this “feeling” came at a cost for which I did not “suffer.”   Like many of us, I was insulated from the Civil Rights movement because I was too young to understand the forces which were shaping the U.S.  And during this era,  there was the space race, there was the war on poverty,  the Vietnam War (as well as the Cold War).  It was during this time–that I entered the public school system (as a kindergartener); my first teacher was an African-American woman.  Her name was Miss Crawford– that is how I remember her; she was a good teacher who cared for all.  The following piece is dedicated to her and all in that era–who were also true pioneers.

Artist's Conception of MOL--via Wikipedia and NASAlink:

Artist’s Conception of MOL–via Wikipedia and NASA

Who Was Major Lawrence & Why is he important to History?

The Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL), designed as a military response to possible space threats to the U.S. from the (former) Soviet Union, was a clandestine operation designed as a manned orbiting spy laboratory.  Although the MOL was not apart of NASA’s operations, many of the pilots trained  to become the eventual MOL astronauts went on to become Skylab and Shuttle astronauts.  There is one notable exception to this illustrious group of heroes: an individual who perished before his career came to ultimate fruition.  The man is Major Robert Henry Lawrence, a true pioneer of the era.  Astronaut Lawrence was African-American, educated at Bradley University (Peoria, Illinois) who ultimately earned a Ph.D. from the Ohio State University in Chemistry in 1965.  He is recognized as the first African-American astronaut (in part) by virtue of mastering a  pioneering landing maneuver used in eventual Shuttle landings.  The maneuver, also known as the “flare,” was used to “slow-down” the descent of “stubby-winged” craft (i.e. eventually the Space Shuttle) during their landings.

Major Lawrence was an exceptional individual–he is remembered by many of his peers as someone who could achieve anything.  One of his greater legacies, perhaps, was to his country.  As a member of the MOL corps of astronauts, his training and research consisted mainly of leading the U.S. into a new period of clandestine space flight.  The MOL program was conceived by the military in the early 1960s as a means to spy upon Cold War adversaries.  The spy satellites of the time needed to be as sophisticated as the U-2  and Black Bird spy planes–but not have the disadvantages of  being “shot down” by an adversary (as in the case of Francis Gary Powers–U-2 spy plane incident).   In 1967, Major Lawrence was chosen as one of the (“right stuff”) MOL astronauts.  (Much of MOL details still seem to be classified.)  However, as costs of the program escalated (in the latter 1960s) and the U.S. put Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin upon Moon, the program was deemed expendable.  Furthermore, satellite technology became sophisticated to the point where “computer-operated” spy satellites  could out-perform manned operations from low-Earth orbit.

Tragedy struck in late 1967, the year in which Major Lawrence was chosen to be a MOL astronaut.  Major Lawrence perished in an accident in which he was instructing another test pilot on the “flare” landing of an F-104 Starfighter jet.  The summary “image” of the report follows:

Report Summary--Source: Remarkable African Americans in  HIstory:

Report Summary–Source: Remarkable African-Americans in History

click on the above (or to the right) for the source:

What can be said? Not only was Major Lawrence was a remarkable individual;  his courage should be noted as exemplary.  Had he not been in the horrific accident, he would have been selected as one of the early Shuttle astronauts.  One unfortunate fact of the F-104 Starfighter–it is currently known to be one of the more dangerous jets deployed during the Cold War.  It had been one “answer” to the Soviet Union’s MIG fighter craft.

Another notable fact of  Astronaut Lawrence’s life:  It took NASA almost three decades to officially recognize Major Lawrence as an astronaut.  There is much speculation for the oversight.  And, what might be clear is his work may still be considered as “classified.”


By United States Air Force [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Link for image source:

Other important links for this piece:

The unsung astronaut MSNBC link PBS link on Cold War spies and MOL


5 thoughts on “Manned Orbital Laboratory–The Story of a Hero and Astronaut

  1. Alex Autin

    I was talking with a friend earlier about some of the things you touched on here, and I wish I had read this beforehand…I would have been much better informed during the conversation. Excellent post!


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