Recently I wrote about the various plans to send Gemini on Circumlunar or Lunar Orbital missions. These studies spanned a period from the very genesis of Gemini as Mercury Mark II in 1961 through into the operational phase of NASA’s earth orbital Gemini missions in 1966.
During the research for that article, I gathered a great many proposals and memos generated by NASA, Congress and the main programme contractors, McDonnell who built the Gemini capsule and Martin (later Martin Marietta) who built the Gemini Launch Vehicle (GLV) – the Titan II. In one of the documents I obtained, there was a curious addition on the final page. A labelled illustration of a Gemini derived vehicle featuring a standard looking capsule mounted on what appears to be a Titan transtage and featuring various additional hardware.
Even at first glance, it seemed pretty obvious that what was shown here was something designed for an entirely different mission to the circumlunar or high orbit variants elsewhere in the document. Notably, this concept featured sensor palettes on what look to be deployable sections of the Gemini adaptor section. Hardware on the palettes includes infra red sensors, radar, cameras, a nuclear sensor, an electronic signals intelligence ‘ferret’ system and most eye-catchingly a set of ‘negation missiles’. Extending forward of the capsule, there is a telescopic mass sensor, whilst on the rear section, additional attitude control jets are included. So what was this vehicle and what mission was it intended to fly? Given that the illustration came with no additional description beyond the labels described, I could only make an informed guess that, given the sensors included and the manouverability implied by the transtage and attitude thrusters, this vehicle was clearly intended to rendezvous with and inspect (and possibly destroy) another orbital vehicle.
The on-orbit inspection of other spacecraft was a popular idea in the early years of the military space race. With space seeming to provide the ‘open skies’ reconnaissance opportunities that had been denied to reconnaissance aircraft, both the USA and the USSR were quick to devise orbital platforms capable of taking a closer look at their adversary’s territory. It seems only natural then that the next logical step would be to create a means of inspecting and, if deemed necessary, removing the other side’s orbital reconnaissance assets.
New threats, new countermeasures
Even before Sputnik 1 became the world’s first artificial satellite in October 1957, the CIA had raised the likelihood that the Soviet Union would have the capability to orbit reconnaissance systems by 1963. The following year the Air Force and the newly formed Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) moved to address this imminent threat by examining possible counter measures, with these studies leading directly to the Air Force’s 1960 proposal for a new system known as the Satellite Inspector for Space Defense, or SAINT. The multi-phased programme aimed to develop a vehicle which could rendezvous with an orbiting target and approach closely enough to allow for a detailed inspection. The target would be illuminated by a bank of lights allowing SAINT’s TV cameras to return close-up views whilst radiation sensors could detect if any nuclear material was carried onboard, indicating that the target could be a weapon. The mass and infrared signature of the target would also be determined alongside any evidence of active countermeasures or decoys. The ability to destroy (via collision) or disable the target by spraying it with black paint were proposed for later versions of SAINT. The first test launch was planned for 1962 and work even began on a more advanced SAINT II, a crewed lifting body using the SV-5 shape that the Martin Company had been developing for the Air Force, but both SAINT and SAINT II faced competition from another Air Force project.
Dyna-Soar was a program initiated by the Air Force’s Air Research and Development Command (ARDC) in October 1957 as a consolidation of work done on a number of previous spaceplane proposals such as BoMi, Brass Bell, RoBo and HYWARDS. The aim was to create a single seat space glider that could be launched vertically using a conventional booster, then return to Earth via an elongated glide path. Whilst previous projects had always referred to this type of mission as Boost-Glide, ARDC now developed the term Dynamic-Soaring (hence the name Dyna-Soar). In 1959 Boeing won the contract to develop the spacecraft with Martin being announced as the booster contractor, but Dyna-Soar’s development became a long and tortuous one, with constantly shifting mission roles, development and testing plans and booster configurations whilst all the while the Air Force struggled to justify the need for such a system.
By the early 1960’s Dyna-Soar had become an orbital system and one of the many missions proposed for the spaceplane was satellite inspection. Within the Air Force, many of the glider’s proponents saw SAINT and SAINT II as a direct threat to Dyna-Soar and this in part led to the cancellation of these programmes in late 1962, but whilst direct internal competition to Dyna-Soar had been removed, the program now faced a far more serious threat to its continuation.
A Blue Gemini?
After the Kennedy Administration entered power in 1961, many defence programmes were reevaluated by the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. Given NASA’s burgeoning manned space programme following Kennedy’s announcement of a lunar landing within the decade, McNamara wondered if there was really any need for separate Air Force human spaceflight vehicles. Given the proposed capabilities of NASA’s new two person Gemini spacecraft, could the Air Force not simply adapt this vehicle to suit their missions? By February 1962 McNamara had officially limited the objectives of the Dyna-Soar programme to that of an orbital research system. This led to a new designation, the X-20A, in June of the same year. In January 1963 McNamara ordered a full review of the Dyna-Soar programme and this was followed later the same month by an agreement between the DoD and NASA for Defense Department participation in Gemini. On March 15th McNamara directed the Air Force to carry out a comparison between Gemini and Dyna-Soar with regards to their military potential. The writing was truly on the wall for the military spaceplane and on December 10th 1963 the programme was finally cancelled, with a new plan for a Gemini based Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) announced to take its place.
So how does this fit in with our mysterious Gemini vehicle? Well, given the similarity between the sensor payload shown and the proposed payload for SAINT, plus the fact that this would clearly put astronauts in the satellite inspection loop as Dyna-Soar and SAINT II had proposed, it seems likely that this concept may have emerged as part of the 1962 comparison between Gemini and Dyna-Soar, assessing their suitability for proposed military mission. Unfortunately, that’s where the paper trail went cold as I was unable to find any supporting evidence for this supposition. Until yesterday.
Finally unearthing the answer
Sometimes, research into historical space programmes can involve countless hours of trawling archives, reading the best books, articles and reports you can find and slowly piecing together the picture. Sometimes though, you can just ask a question and you get lucky.
Having appealed for information relating to the original image a number of times through forums and social media, I thought I’d give it a final try yesterday by posting the image up on the Space Hipsters Facebook group. Knowing that a large number of space historians and authors frequent the group, it seemed a reasonable enough place to try an appeal. Noted MilSpace historian Dwayne Day responded that, although he was familiar with the illustration, he’d been unable to uncover any supporting details. Figuring that if he didn’t know, maybe nobody would, I was prepared to accept this as one of those concepts that occasionally surfaces with no obvious provenance, but soon after another member, Brian Matney, responded with a document apparently relating to MOL which included our mystery vehicle.
Sure enough, the document did contain the mystery vehicle but also gave a better insight into those final months of Dyna-Soar and the genesis of what soon became MOL. Dated October 1963 and titled Manned Orbiting Stations and Alternatives, this document was a report to the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee (PSAC), presumably by the Air Force or DoD, on potential Gemini based military orbital systems.
The report examines a number of options, from extended missions using the existing Gemini capsule and GLV (deemed unattractive due to small potential gains and possible delays and schedule disruption to NASA’s Gemini flights), through the use of a modified single-seat Gemini on the existing GLV (seen as a questionable option due to development costs and limited payloads) and onto more advanced vehicles utilising the Titan IIIC launch vehicle. It’s in this final category, with a predicted 14,000lb payload capacity available (dependant on orbit), that the Air Force sees potential and accordingly this is where we see the interesting concepts discussed in greater detail.
Three possible uses are mentioned: General Manoeuvrable & Non-General Manoeuvrable testing, Bioastronautic Testing and Mission Peculiar Development testing. The document is fairly thin in detail regarding exactly what sort of testing would be undertaken beyond an acknowledgement that altitudes up to 1000nm could be reached and long duration flights with larger working spaces would be possible. Under the ‘Peculiar Missions’ heading we find configurations for Rendezvous Inspection, Fly-By and Multi-Sensor Reconnaissance.
The Reconnaissance variants show many of the features that later became so closely associated with MOL such as the connecting tunnel between the Gemini and the aft section requiring a hatch in the heat shield, and large pressurised ‘shirt-sleeve environment’ work spaces. The sensor payload is perhaps unsurprisingly not discussed.
Under Rendezvous Inspection we again see a number of concepts, some resembling smaller versions of what would eventually become MOL but amongst them we find our mystery vehicle described as Typical Integration of Inspection Sensors (Universal Module). The image is far less clear than the one I initially found, indeed by this point much of the report becomes illegible, but fortunately the document has a covering note attached from Scott Lowther of Aerospace Projects Review explaining that he produced the ‘cleaned-up’ version of the image after obtaining the original document.
So I now have my answer to the mystery Gemini vehicle. Whilst I was broadly correct about the mission it was intended to fly, it’s interesting to see the timing associated with these concepts.
Given that this report was published in October 1963, it’s probably safe to assume that somewhere out there, there will be more detailed DoD reports and supporting proposals produced by McDonnell and Martin following McNamara’s request for the comparison with Dyna-Soar some months earlier. It’s also interesting to speculate on the project definition process that took place between the Manned Orbiting Station concepts shown here and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory announced by McNamara 2 months later. I guess ‘Laboratory’ does sound more innocuous! I can also finally put an image credit on the illustration that got me started on this in the first place.
Again I’d like to thank Brian Matney for coming through with the report when I was beginning to give up hope, Dwayne Day for his input and Scott Lowther for his tireless work in unearthing obscure aerospace programmes and making them available to the rest of us. You can find many fascinating articles by Dwayne Day on military space surveillance and intelligence systems over at The Space Review. If you enjoy reading about some of the ‘what-ifs’ and dead ends of the space programme, I can unreservedly recommend Aerospace Projects Review either for Scott Lowther’s blog or the excellent pdf issues he puts together.
Manned Orbiting Stations and Alternatives
Report to the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee – October 10, 1963
History of the X-20A Dyna-Soar: Volume 1
Clarence J. Geiger, Aeronautical Systems Division Information Office (USAF) – October 1963
Encyclopedia Astronautica – Accessed 27th June, 2018
Encyclopedia Astronautica – Accessed 27th June, 2018