Air Force manned two-seat “Space Fighter” based on the MBV-1 space capsule and canceled MBV-2 project. Launched by the Atlas III launch vehicle.

MBF-101 In 1956, with delays to the “Meteor” program pushing its launch date back, the Air Force realized it needed a stop-gap craft for its planned “Space Denial” system to protect U.S. reconnaissance vehicles – manned or unmanned – in orbit. The Soviets had already stated that craft orbiting over Soviet territory were “not protected” by international law and that the Soviet Union would be fully within their rights to “examine, capture or shoot down any such vehicles found within Soviet airspace.”

The U.S.S.R. had launched their first unmanned satellite on June 3rd of 1956 and it was believed they would have a manned craft available by early 1958 (in fact, their first launch of “Vostok 1” was not until late November of 1959), thus, the U.S. found itself in need of a craft that could protect its growing space-based assets.

With the research from the recently canceled MBV-2 project as a base, Convair won the contract and quickly produced the 101. Highly similar to the MBV-1 in external appearance, the vehicle was slightly longer and heavier than the MBV-1. Further changes were compartments designed to hold seven small missiles and the “grabber,” a simple mechanical arm designed to attach the spacecraft to others.

The first launch of the craft was on May 11th, 1957 from White Sands, where it completed five orbits and a simulated closing maneuver on an “enemy” satellite (actually an Atlas III from the previous year), deorbiting and coming to a near perfect touch down near Groom Lake, Nevada.

The Air Force launched five more test flights during the next two months as the next five vehicles were delivered, then put them on “active” duty (though in practice this simply meant regular test flights). At the end of the year, Convair began delivery of the “Extended Maneuverability Stage” – or “transtage” – which gave the craft vastly extended maneuvering capabilities in orbit. They also delivered two three-seat versions, designed to be used as rescue craft. Along with the remaining two-seat version, two more of the three-seaters would be delivered before the final delivery in 1960 of the sixteenth vehicle.

An interesting feature of the three-seaters is that it retained the twin hatches of the two-seat version, so you were forced to climb over one or other of the seats to get to this one. Also, due to this retention of the twin hatch design, only the two standard seats had ejection mechanisms, the add-on third seat did not. As it was planned for missions where the third seat (and possibly second) would be empty at launch, and most ejection scenarios were from the launch to 50,000 foot portion of the flight, this was not considered a deficit. On the rare (only four times during its entire operational lifetime) occasions where three men were launched in the vehicle, the third seat was joking referred to as the “Captain's Chair,” as in an emergency that occupant would “be going down with the ship.”

In service, the 101 never fired a shot. The missile tubes were only loaded on eight occasions to test the crafts offensive capabilities. Apart from several of the craft being loaned to “Project Stairstep” in the early years, the primary duties for the craft were to maintain a manned Air Force presence in space, and to recover/replace film canisters from the Air Force/CIA “Keyhole” unmanned satellites and perform maintenance on them and other Air Force craft in orbit.

Gradually replaced by the 102s, the last 101 flew on June 25, 1962.

Status: Out of production.
Gross mass: 2,395 kg (5,269 lb).
Unfuelled mass: 2,181 kg (4,800 lb).
Height: 4.02 m (13.19 ft).
Width: 3.38 m (11.09 ft).
Thrust: 726 N (163 lbf).
Specific impulse: 273 s.
First Launch: 1957.05.11.
Last Launch: 1962.06.25.
Number Launches: 163.

Associated Spacecraft