The MOL Art Collection is a set of thirty-three illustrations that I acquired in March 2013. They depict the human-oriented aspects of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). MOL was a joint project of the U.S. Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) that was initiated in 1965 and cancelled in 1969 without having flown a single mission.

The images cover the astronauts' life on the MOL vehicles, including the Gemini-B crew capsule and the pressurized crew compartment of the MOL, but don't even hint at the NRO's highly-classified KH-10 DORIAN reconnaissance camera system that was MOL's primary payload. They arrived with almost no supporting information, including even the dates they were painted, and why.

This web feature is my attempt to describe the art, to document its creation and justification, and to put it into the context of the pressures and motivations of the early Space Age. There are many hot links to additional information: please explore them all!

Getting There

The most dramatic part of any spaceflight is the launch into Earth orbit. The MOL vehicle and its Gemini-B crew capsule would have been launched together on a huge rocket from a secret West Coast space center.

MOL activation

The business of MOL was to have been detailed, repeated reconnaissance of America's Cold War adversaries from a very low orbit. Activation of the vehicle systems was a make-or-break requirement for mission success.

Daily Living

MOL missions were planned to last up to a month in an era when American and Russian spaceflights were still measured in hours and days. The pilots would have needed to eat, sleep, exercise and take care of other bodily functions to stay fit during their long flights.

Coming Home

A successful mission required a safe splashdown. The U.S. Navy would have sent aircraft carriers to the Pacific Ocean recovery site to retrieve the pilots and the intelligence materials they had collected in orbit. 

About MOL

"MOL" refers to the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, a joint effort of the U.S. Air Force and the top-secret National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The program was initiated by the Air Force in 1963 as a general purpose orbiting laboratory to determine whether astronauts had any useful military role in space, the last in an series of manned space programs proposed by that service. It was approved for implementation in 1965 only after the NRO agreed to add the KH-10 DORIAN reconnaissance telescope to the vehicle, substituting the very specific mission of photographing high-priority ground targets inside the borders of America's Cold War adversaries for the previous generic tasks for the pilots.

The unpressurized KH-10 would have shared the long MOL cylinder with the pressurized module housing the pilots' habitat and work stations. The pilots would have occupied the detachable Gemini-B spacecraft during launch and landing, and transferred between it and the pressurized module through a long tunnel. McDonnell Aircraft Corp. was to provide the Gemini-B vehicles, a modification of NASA's highly-successful Gemini series spacecraft, and Douglas Aircraft Co. was to build the MOL cylinders to house the KH-10 system and the adjoining pressurized crew module. (McDonnell and Douglas merged in April 1967 but maintained distinct identities for several years thereafter. The McDonnell-Douglas Corp. was acquired by The Boeing Co. in 1997.)

The MOL program planned seven separate missions, up to five of them to be manned for a month. But it was rendered obsolete by the rapid progress in unmanned reconnaissance satellites and was cancelled in 1969 without ever flying its first mission, which was always scheduled about three years in the future.

By the way: MOL was pronounced "mole" and "M-O-L" by people who worked on it, and sometimes both ways by the same person. But it was never pronounced "moll."

About the Paintings

The MOL Art Collection is a set of thirty-three illustrations that was offered for sale by the estate of a retired McDonnell-Douglas engineer (not the artist) in June 2011. I acquired them through an intermediary in March 2013. Almost no other information was available, but in April 2014, after many inquiries, I contacted Megan Shaw Prelinger, author of Another Science Fiction, an analysis of corporate aerospace art of the early space age, and she directed me to famed aviation artist Mike Machat. Machat identified the artist as Neal Jacobe and provided extensive background information on aerospace art activities at Douglas Aircraft Co. when he and Jacobe both worked there.

The illustrations include thirty acrylic paintings on art board and three photographs of paintings affixed to the same type of art board. The boards measure 15 x 20 inches (38 x 51 cm). The paintings range from 9 x 12 inches (16 x 31 cm) at the smallest to 11 x 17 inches (16 x 43 cm) and 12 x 16 inches (31 x 41 cm) at the largest, averaging 11 x 14 inches (28 x 37 cm). The three photographs measure 10 x 8 inches (24 x 19 cm). 

In this photograph of painting 24, the cover sheet and onion skin sheet are visible, but no acetate sheet is present. (Credit: Jon Rogers, 2012)

Each painting had one or more protective sheets over the painted surface (see photograph at right). All had a protective cover sheet of something like thin but opaque butcher paper attached at the back of the art board by masking tape. Most of the paintings had second, thin sheet of translucent protective paper like onion skin paper used by letter writers of olden days for international correspondence. Many also had clear acetate layers previously attached by masking tape, which had long since come loose. The onion skin and butcher paper covers often contain handwritten editorial changes presumably from the art director and other critics. In a few cases, the acetate has black bold lettering identifying features on the painting, clearly as overlays for photography and even animations.

All of the illustrations relate to the human-oriented aspects of the MOL vehicle, including the Gemini-B crew capsule and the pressurized crew compartment of the MOL, but don't even hint at the highly-classified KH-10 DORIAN reconnaissance camera system that was MOL's primary payload.

Machat told me that the content and layout of such paintings was controlled by the department art director, leaving the artist little freedom to improvise. Prelinger wrote that throughout the aerospace industry the goal of such art was to present the corporate image, not that artist's personal creative vision, which is why most such art was not even signed by the artist. Machat noted that artists sometimes signed their work nonetheless, hiding their signatures within elements of the pairings. Only five of these thirty-five images have Jacobe's signature, but the entire set is assumed to be his work.

Artwork such as these paintings was made for a variety of reasons: documentation of a product line, advertisement to other potential customers (yes, even military space vehicles), art shows, corporate displays at major public events such as the annual international air shows, and even internal motivational posters.

Machat told me that this volume of work was a typical assignment for a Douglas artist and would have taken Jacobe about three weeks to complete. 

These illustrations of the MOL program are all undated. The acrylic paintings were done no earlier than late 1967 or early 1968, judging by their content. The paintings were obviously based on contemporary technical data: some of the MOL interior scenes look almost identical to Douglas photographs of the module mockup in about 1968; the spacesuits worn by the pilots were delivered by the Hamilton Standard Co. starting in late 1967. Two of the photographs show MOL-related scenes using earlier technology and thus appear to predate the set of paintings.

A hand-written "receipt" (see What's Missing?) for three paintings removed from the collection for display in an art show (possibly the 7th annual Illustrations West show) is dated August 19, 1969, less than two months after the MOL program was cancelled, indicating that the collection was completed and still accessible at that date. The descriptions are ambiguous enough that it is possible that two of the paintings were returned, but the third is definitely missing.

When programs were cancelled, as happened to MOL in 1969, such art was collected along with other "residue" of the unsuccessful--and unprofitable--effort and discarded. These paintings may well have been salvaged from a dumpster, perhaps by the McDonnell-Douglas engineer whose estate provided them, apparently after decades in his garage.

This website documents the entire set of paintings, which have been displayed locally and will be donated to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.


About the Artist

Neil Edmund Jacobe was born in Hawarden, Iowa, on March 13, 1924. He graduated from Wilson High School in Cherokee, Iowa, in 1942.

During World War II, he served in Patton's Third Army and earned the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart in the Battle of the Bulge. After seven months of hospitalization and rehabilitation, he returned to Cherokee to marry his high school sweetheart, Edythe “Ede” Kennedy. They moved to Long Beach, California, where he graduated from Jepson Art School in Los Angeles.

Neil had a successful career as an illustrator and graphic artist for Douglas (later McDonnell Douglas) Aircraft Company and then Hughes Aircraft Company, winning national awards for his military paintings. A colleague, Mike Machat, recalled their time at Long Beach as "like being in Disneyland every day": making decals for display models, artwork for brochures, technical manuals and sales presentations to airlines, historical exhibits and large company exhibits for the Paris and Farnborough air shows.

After retiring in 1984, Neil continued to win awards for his watercolor, acrylic and oil paintings of the old West, boats in the marina, ocean scenes and Long Beach's old "Pike" amusement park. When he wasn't painting, he was working on his house, attending sporting events, sharing time with family and friends or gone with "Ede" in their motor home to all parts of the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Neil Jacobe passed away peacefully in Long Beach, California, on March 8, 2013, just five days short of his 89th birthday—ironically, at almost the same time that I acquired the paintings.


Many individuals assisted with the acquisition and interpretation of these illustrations. Particular thanks for special assistance and incisive insights go to Mike Machat, Megan Shaw Prelinger, Dwayne Day, Rick Nygren, Judy Hayes, Andrea Hanson, Mike Ciancone and Jon Rogers.

What's Missing?

The portfolio contains one painting that may be incomplete,  an additional painting that doesn't fit into the mission sequence, a hint of at least one more painting that would complete the series, vestiges of an earlier portfolio of paintings on the same topic, and a large number of missing persons who played a significant role in the Douglas art department in the mid-to-late 1960s. Please take a few moments to look over the things that didn't quite fit.