WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE -- Robert Crippen chose a highly secretive Air Force space flight program in the 1960s thinking he would have a better chance to fly in space than choosing the NASA astronaut corps and ride on a Gemini space flight.
But when the Air Force's Manned Orbiting Laboratory program was canceled in June 1969 before the Air Force could launch a single astronaut into space, he was devastated.
"That was one of the low points of my life," he said in an interview Thursday at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. "I was on a high, being in an astronaut program, and all of a sudden I didn't know what I was going to do."
Years later, the Navy test pilot would become one of two NASA astronauts to rocket into orbit on the first space shuttle launch.
Thursday, the Air Force museum was set to bring together Crippen with former MOL astronauts Karol Bobko, Albert Crews and Richard Truly and National Reconnaissance Office officials to talk publicly about the once highly secret manned reconnaissance space program that never took flight.
The little-known program would have launched a two-man Gemini space capsule attached to a cylindrical laboratory with a giant camera inside to spy on what the nation's adversaries were up to. The Air Force teamed with the NRO, which developed a photo reconnaissance system code-named Dorian inside the space lab.
The museum gathering coincided with the NRO's declassification on its website this week of more than 800 records, or 22,000 pages of documents, about the Cold War-era initiative in the high ground of space. The documents showed the reconnaissance system had the photo resolution capability from orbit of spotting objects than less a foot long, according to the NRO.
"We did not have a lot of resources to help us understand what our adversaries were up to and we were really trying to lean forward when it came to innovation," said James D. Outzen, NRO chief historian. "This was a very unique and novel approach having human-controlled intelligence collection from space. Certainly, a one-of-a-kind effort for the time period."
In a surprise move, President Richard M. Nixon decided unmanned satellites were a cheaper alternative. With federal budget pressures mounting because of Apollo moon flights and the Vietnam war, he canceled the secret reconnaissance program when budget estimates nearly doubled after $1.6 billion was spent and just a little more than a month before the United States landed Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, a Wapakoneta native, and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.
Despite the cancellation, the MOL and Dorian programs boosted the expertise and careers of the astronauts who were among the few chosen and spun-off technological gains to satellite reconnaissance and civilian space flight, said Robert A. McDonald, director of the Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance.
Decades later, the cancellation of Crippen and Crews first shot into space was not forgotten.
Crippen transferred to the NASA astronaut corps because he was under an age limit of 35, but Crews, who was over the age cut-off, was left out. The Air Force test pilot later flew NASA aircraft.
"There's no doubt in my mind that a manned system was better than an unmanned system," said Crews, 86, of Melbourne, Fla., "but if an unmanned system can do the job, then it's ridiculous for all the extra design and power requirements to support a man because you've got to keep him alive."
Crippen said there's room for manned and unmanned space missions, but humans have unique capabilities automated systems don't.
The Columbia space shuttle flight with fellow astronaut John Young in April 1981 was a second chance at space.
"Somehow, my name came our of a hat to go on that first one," said Crippen, 78, of West Palm Beach, Fla. "So you can never tell what life's going to lead you to."
The shuttle test flight achieved several firsts, from flying the space plane in orbit before it was tested on an unmanned flight, to landing on a runway from space, he said.
For Crippen, the entire mission was unforgettable when asked what he recalled most: "I'll give you John Young's answer: The part between takeoff and landing. It was all fantastic."