Chief Designers 6: Max Faget

"Cutaway Diagram of Project Mercury"

A cutaway drawing of Max Faget’s biggest achievement, the Mercury capsule.This 1959 diagram was drawn in an unsettled period between the “C” and “D” designs of the craft, the latter of which flew. Public domain image from NASA.

Maxime Allen Faget was the premiere American spacecraft designer from the days of the Mercury capsule to the initial stages of the Space Shuttle. It was due to his understanding of Harvey Allen’s “Blunt Body Theory” that American spacecraft had their iconic bell shape, and his strong opinion about his ideas for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo led contractors to coin the aphorism “What Max Faget wants, Max Faget gets”. Experience proved that going against his intuitions was the quickest route to a losing bid in NASA design competitions.

Faget was born in Stann Creek, British Honduras (now Dangriga, Belize) on August 26, 1921. His father was a noted tropical disease researcher, employed by the British, and his family was of French descent via Hispaniola and New Orleans (his last name was pronounced in the French manner, fa-Zhay). His father was also American and so so was young Max; accordingly the family eventually returned to the United States. The younger Faget reportedly had a passion for science fiction—he had a subscription to Astounding Science Fiction—and model airplanes, interests which presumably led him to his ultimate career.

Max Faget and Frank Borman

Max Faget, foreground, and astronaut Frank Borman. This photograph was taken in April 1967 during the investigation into the Apollo 1 fire. Public domain image via NASA.

In 1943 he graduated from Louisiana State University (where his roommate was rocket designer Guy Thibodeaux) with a degree in mechanical engineering, then served on the submarine USS Guavina during World War II. After the war ended he joined NACA in 1946, which meant he was in on the ground floor when that agency was became NASA in 1958.

Even before that happened he had been working on the design of a space capsule radically different from what had been considered before. Experiments in the mid-1950s with ballistic missiles had proven that the best simple way to get something safely out of orbit was with a blunt-ended capsule rather than the sharply pointed craft that had been imagined necessary until then, or the lenticular shape that was also considered at the time. Taking this idea, Faget came up with a rough sketch that would eventually evolve into the Mercury capsule.

This work was mostly done after Faget joined the Space Task Group, a group of 45 people—37 of them engineers—based out of Langley Research Center in Virginia until 1961. With the addition of Canadian Avro engineers, Faget gained his right-hand man for Mercury, Jim Chamberlin. Then in 1961, following Kennedy’s declaration that the United States was going to send a man to the Moon, the Space Task Group was greatly enlarged and moved to become the Manned Space Center (now the Johnson Space Center) in Houston, Texas. Their task was to follow through on Kennedy’s promise, and Faget was its Chief Engineer from February 1962.

As a result, Mercury went ahead with him in the lead; among other things, he created the escape tower for Mercury and later adapted for use with Apollo. He would then go on to shepherd the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft designs to completion.

Faget had an informal veto on NASA’s spacecraft designs from about 1958 to 1970, and he was not afraid to use it. Most notably the design competition for the Apollo spacecraft was jury-rigged to select the second-best scoring proposal over that of Martin-Marietta because it more closely resembled what he had designed himself in counterpoint to the external proposals.

Space Shuttle concepts

Space shuttle concepts around 1970. Faget’s “DC-3″ is second from the top on the right. The bizarre SERV is top left. Public domain image from NASA.

His touch left him only once during his career at NASA, during the Space Shuttle design. At first he favoured something like Big G, but he soon came over to the side of a reusable spaceplane. While each NASA spaceflight centre had its own ideas, Faget considered all of them too complex and came up with a simpler, stubby-winged design called the “DC-3” in honour of the great cargo plane of the early days of aviation. This set off a battle within NASA over the cross-range capability of the Shuttle-to-be, with one side eventually settling on a delta-winged configuration and one side taking up Max Faget’s design as adopted and submitted by North American Aviation. Only the delta-wing arrangement would give the Shuttle a high cross-range, and that was felt to be useful enough that many in NASA held out against Faget’s proposal until the scales were tilted in their favour. Faced with a budget crunch, new NASA director James Fletcher arranged to have the US Air Force brought on as a partner for the spaceplane, and their requirement for cross-range was even higher than that envisioned by the delta-wing partisans at NASA. The DC-3 was abandoned and the Space Shuttle as we now know it began to take shape. His failure to get his design selected was apparently a source of minor annoyance to Faget for the rest of his life, but he dove into the construction of the new spaceplane and helped bring it to completion.

Faget left NASA in late 1981, not long after the flight of STS-2. He founded Space Industries Incorporated in 1983, which focused on projects intended to explore the unique conditions of space as they could be applied to industry and chemistry. Their Industrial Space Facility—a small, unmanned space station—never flew, but the Wake Shield Facility (which used its motion through space to make a “shadow” of ultra-high vacuum behind it it) ran experiments on three Space Shuttle missions from 1994-96.
Faget died of bladder cancer on October 10, 2004 at the age of 83.

Chief Designers 5: Wernher von Braun

von Braun and Nebel, c.1932

Wernher von Braun, right, and VfR compatriot Rudolf Nebel, circa 1932. Image origin unknown, believed to be in the public domain. Please contact the author if you have more information. Click for a larger view.

For many years Wernher von Braun was considered the paramount figure in the history of spaceflight. Certainly he had the unique distinction of being a key figure in two national space programs: the precocious and abortive German one, and the dominant American one. However against this we need to set the fact that he was “only” a rocket designer and was not intimately involved in developing the spacecraft that rode on top of them—one could make the argument that Max Faget was the most important figure in American manned spaceflight history because he was dominant in that role—and he pales in comparison to what we have learned about Sergei Korolev’s role in the Soviet space program since the 1980s. He and Korolev were the two greatest visionaries of the early space program, but then von Braun also suffers from having the most morally problematic career of any leading person in the history of space as well.

Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr von Braun was born in Wirsitz, Germany (now Wyrzysk, Poland) on March 23, 1912. From 1915 he and his family lived in Berlin. Reportedly the present of a telescope and later a copy of Herman Oberth’s seminal book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (By Rocket into Interplanetary Space) fascinated him and drew his attention to space.

A peripatetic school career let him develop his skills in physics and mathematics, ultimately leading to a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Technische Hochschule Berlin in 1932 and a degree in physics from Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in 1934. It was in 1930, however, that his future was cemented by his joining the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (“Spaceflight Society”, commonly known as VfR), which had been founded three years previously. Their experiments with rocketry drew the attention of the German Army, particularly Walter Dornberger.

Under Dornburger, von Braun became the head of a rocket research program at Kummersdorf—the thesis for his 1934 degree was classified and unpublished until 1960—and civilian testing of rockets was banned. Unfortunately for Germany and the world as a whole, these preliminary steps were taken under the new German government of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. Von Braun’s fortunes and that of German rocketry would rise and fall with them.

After several years of success at Kummersdorf, von Braun’s group was moved to Peenemünde on the Baltic coast. There they developed the A4 rocket, better-known as the V-2. This was the first man-made object to reach space, doing so several times on suborbital test flights, possibly as early as the steep misfire that was the fourth V-2 test flight on October 3, 1942 and certainly no later than the end of 1944. Unfortunately for von Braun’s future legacy it was used to launch conventional warheads at the UK and later the invading Allied armies after D-Day. Both London and Antwerp suffered under his rocket. Perhaps even worse was the fact that from the autumn of 1943 the V-2 was built in the Mittelwerk using slaves taken from Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. Von Braun managed to distance himself from this during his lifetime by pointing to his imprisonment by the Gestapo for two weeks in the spring of 1943, but the historical consensus since then is that von Braun knew more than he let on during his life and did little to resist the SS (who ran Mittelwerk, and of which von Braun had been an honorary member since 1940) after his release from prison so long as he could continue his rocketry work.

Ultimately his efforts to clandestinely jumpstart a German space program as a side effect of his military research came to a halt with the end of World War II. He and some 500 others of his Peenemünde group surrendered to the American 44th Infantry Division and were eventually sent to the United States as part of Operation Paperclip, a program to transfer as many key German scientists as possible out of Germany and away from the USSR and UK. Upon arriving in the US he and his compatriots had their war careers and Nazi activities hidden by the American government. For the next five years his role was to teach the US Army about the V-2 and its underlying technology while essentially under house arrest at Fort Bliss, Texas.

In 1950 he and what was left of the Peenemünde group were transferred to Huntsville, Alabama, where their conditions were relaxed and they were allowed to enter civilian life in the United States. Von Braun became technical director of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, whose purpose was to develop a long-range ballistic missile. This they did, the Redstone. During this time, von Braun also became famous as a public advocate of spaceflight, helping to write a popular series on the future possibilities called “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” for Collier’s magazine in 1952-4; later he was technical director and a spokesperson for a highly rated television special on the same topic for Disney in 1955. He also became an American citizen during this time.

At this point the United States was close to launching its first satellite into space, but the government was loath to have it done by the German expatriates. Only after the launch of Sputnik 1 and the answering failure of the United States’ first Vanguard launch on December 6, 1957 was the Army and von Braun able to overcome this reluctance. On January 31, 1958, the first American satellite, Explorer 1, rode into orbit on top of a Jupiter-C rocket—a Redstone derivative produced by the Huntsville team.

Wernher von Braun's NASA portrait, 1960

Wernher von Braun’s NASA portrait, 1960. At age 48 he had just become director of Marshall Space Flight Center after already being the most important person in Germany’s wartime rocketry program. Public domain image.

For the next two-and-a-half years, von Braun’s responsibilities were slowly transferred from the Army to the US’ new civilian space agency NASA. Project Mercury was begun, and used Redstone derivatives for launches. Hunstville began work on a heavy launcher named Saturn, initially for an Army space program but then that was transferred to NASA too. Finally all Army space activities were passed over to NASA on the order of President Eisenhower. On July 1, 1960 the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville was renamed the Marshall Space Flight Center and put entirely in the hands of the civilian space agency. Von Braun was to be its first director, a position he held until 1970.

Those ten years saw von Braun living his dream, developing the Saturn V and being a key contributor to the Apollo program that landed men on the Moon. His vision of America’s future in space began to diverge from reality post-Apollo 11, however. He was a strong advocate of continuing on to Mars—the Integrated Program Plan’s Mars mission was largely his baby—and after two years in Washington following his transfer from Huntsville he came to realize that it was not going to happen. He resigned from NASA on May 26, 1972.

In 1973 he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, which slowly sapped away his life. Before he was done, however, he helped to found the National Space Institute, one of the precursors the National Space Society, a major space advocacy and education group. He served as its first president before his hospitalization and then death on June 16, 1977 at age 65.

Chief Designers 4: Sergei Korolev

Monument to Korolev in Baikonur

Sergei Korolev was unknown in his lifetime, and under-reported until glasnost. This monument to him is in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, Public domain image.

For many years, Wernher von Braun was lauded as the father of manned space travel, but to a large extent this was an artifact of Soviet secrecy. The USSR was the first to most early spaceflight goals, but the the man in charge was unknown in the West and even to a very large extent within the Soviet Union too. Only after his death did his name become known. Until then he was referred to only as “Chief Designer”, a term the author has expanded to include the other giants being profiled. But Sergei Korolev was the most important and influential of them.

Sergei Pavlovich Korolev was born in Zhitomir in what is now Ukraine on January 12, 1907. His parents separated while he was very young, and he was raised by his grandparents in his mother’s home town of Nizhyn. He became interested in aeronautical engineering as he grew older, and joined an aviation society in Odessa after his mother and her new husband moved there. He began concentrating on the study of engineering at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute followed by the Bauman Moscow State Technical University, from which he graduated in 1929.

He began working at the 4th Experimental Section design bureau and soon became interested in rockets as a way to accelerate planes. He then helped to found the first professional rocket-design organization in the world, GIRD, in 1931, and soon became the director of the group. A few years later GIRD was amalgamated with a second group based in Leningrad to form RNII; the second group had as a member the man with whom Korolev would do most of his important work in the 1950s, Valentin Glushko.

Sergey Korolev, age 30

Sergei Korolev, age 31, just prior to his arrest in the Great Purge. Public domain image.

Korolev became chief engineer of RNII, but in 1938, during the Great Purge, he was arrested on the testimony of three fellow engineers. Two of them were executed during the purge, but the other was Glushko. Despite Korolev’s later protestations to the contrary and their periods of cooperation, there is reason to believe that he never forgave him for this.

He certainly had a lot to forgive. Korolev was tortured in Lubyanka Prison, found guilty in a show trial, and sent to work in a gold mine in the notorious Kolyma region of far north-eastern Russia. Conditions were brutal and the period of over a year that he spent there had effects on his health for the rest of his life.

Thankfully for the eventual Soviet space program he was sent back west to Moscow at the end of 1939 and put to work in a sharaska, one of the organized prison camps in the gulag system aimed at research and engineering for the Soviet Union. While still a prison camp, conditions there were considerably better than in Kolyma.

He was first assigned to work with famous Russian aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev, but in 1942 was moved to a project under Glushko that worked on rocket-assisted takeoff units for aircraft. Its success was enough that he was released from prison on June 27, 1944 as part of a larger amnesty for engineers in the sharashka system.

His decisive turn towards ballistic missiles may have taken place in 1945-6, when he was one of the team sent from the USSR to the newly conquered Germany to examine that country’s rocketry program. Upon his return to the Soviet Union, he became the chief designer of long-range ballistic missiles for the newly formed OKB-1 design bureau. It was there that he started to show his organizational and leadership abilities, and OKB-1 quickly developed the R-1, R-2, and R-5 missiles.

The culmination of this work was the R-7 Semyorka, the first intercontinental ballistic missile. More interesting from the standpoint of space history, though, was the fact that an ICBM can very easily serve as an orbital launch vehicle. Capitalizing on the favour that his missile work had brought him in the eyes of Nikita Khrushchev—Stalin and his purges having thankfully died in 1953, Korolev had had his previous sentence expunged in April 1957—he adapted the R-7 to lift a satellite into orbit. The intended payload was heavy and late in coming, so Korolev arranged for a small improvisation dubbed Sputnik 1. With it he inaugurated the Space Age on October 4, 1957.

For the next few years the successes came fast and thick, culminating in Yuri Gagarin’s flight on April 12, 1961. By 1964, however, an alliance between one of his allies and one of his rivals had attacked Korolev’s program. The rival was Vladimir Chelomei, who worked his way into Khrushchev’s favour by developing the UR-100 ICBM—a considerably better missile than the R-9 with which Korolev tried to counter. The ally was the aforementioned Valentin Glushko, who had designed the rocket engines used by the R-7 and its manned launching derivatives. His working relationship with Korolev came apart over a disagreement about which propellants were best for rocketry: cryogenic LOX and LH2, or storable-but-toxic N2O4 and UDMH. History has judged Korolev right, as even Glushko came around to cryogenics when it was his turn to develop a large launcher in the 1980s. Only China launches people with N2O4 and UDMH. Even so, at the time Glushko defected to Chelomei’s camp and took all his skill at developing rocket engines with him.

From 1964 to early 1966 Korolev’s political skills came to the fore as he worked to wrest back complete control of the Soviet space program from Chelomei, a task in which he was largely successful. But in that time the Russians’ manned space program foundered, partly from this internal confusion and partly because of the fall of Nikita Khrushchev and his replacement with the much-less interested Leonid Brezhnev.

Whether or not Korolev would have been able to put the program back on track is an open question. He entered hospital on January 5, 1966 for surgery on a bleeding intestinal polyp and never came back out. While under the knife, his surgeon—the Russian Minister of Health, Boris Petrovski, which shows how important Korolev had become—apparently discovered a large, malignant tumour in Korolev’s abdomen (there are contradictory reports from various sources, but this is likeliest). The surgery dragged on far longer than it should have as the surgeon attempted to deal with the unexpected development and Korolev’s poor health post-Kolyma either caused him to have a fatal heart attack or bleed out due to a sudden hemorrhage. He died on the operating table on January 14, 1966 at the age of 59.

The USSR’s manned space program came apart at the seams for a while after this, either because Korolev’s successor Vasily Mishin was incompetent or the USSR was not yet able to deal with the additional complexity of a Moon mission—opinions vary. The years from 1966 to 1974 were fraught with exploding N1s and deaths during the first Soyuz and Salyut missions. A resurgence would have to wait until the mid-1970s. Korolev was at least known by name during this time period, but observers in the West still underestimated his importance. Only the onset of glasnost in the USSR let him step out of the shadow and assume his central position in Soviet space history.

Chief Designers 3: Jim Chamberlin

Jim Chamberlin's Achievement

Jim Chamberlin’s major accomplishment, the Gemini spacecraft. Though only baseline Geminis flew, there were numerous proposals to adapt this workhorse to different uses. This photograph shows Gemini 7 from the inside of Gemini 6. Public domain image via NASA.

James Arthur Chamberlin was a key member of NASA’s Space Task Group, which became the Manned Space Centre (now the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center) in Houston, Texas. During his NASA career he was the Head of Engineering for the Max Faget-designed Mercury capsule, then graduated to become the designer of the Gemini capsule. Many of the Gemini-derived proposals in this book came from him, or involved him heavily. He was also responsible for McDonnell Douglas’ unsuccessful shuttle proposal and instrumental in the development of the Space Shuttle that actually got built.

Chamberlin was born in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada on May 23, 1915. After his father was killed in World War I, his mother relocated the family to Toronto, and Chamberlin eventually was trained as an engineer at the University of Toronto and Imperial College London. After working in the United Kingdom for a few years, he returned to Canada and spent most of World War II designing aircraft.

Jim Chamberlin, 1950s

Jim Chamberlin sometime in the 1950s prior to joining NASA. Public domain image via Industry Canada.

After the war ended he moved on to Avro Aircraft of Toronto, a subsidiary of Hawker Siddley. There he rose in the ranks until he became the chief of technical design for the Avro Arrow, an advanced jet interceptor. When that program was cancelled in 1959 (a source of some chagrin in Canada to this day), he led more than two dozen now-unemployed Avro engineers to the United States; they joined the recently created Manned Space Center in Langley, Virginia during April of 1959. Project Mercury was already underway, with Max Faget’s work on designing its capsule begun even before the formation of NASA in July 1958. Chamberlin became Faget’s right-hand man as head of engineering and project manager in charge of seeing the Mercury capsule through its manufacture by McDonnell Aircraft. NASA’s own history describes him as the man in charge of “troubleshooting problems that cropped up during the early Mercury flights”.

With that experience under his belt, Chamberlin was assigned to be the chief designer of the follow-up to Mercury. The Apollo program was already underway too, but was still years away from producing something tangible, and the Gemini capsule flew into that gap.

Even today the Gemini has its proponents, some even calling for its return as a solution to the United States’ troubles with manned space exploration in the 21st century. It was a very versatile craft, and when McDonnell was shut out of building the Apollo spacecraft (which was given to North American Aviation and Grumman Aircraft Engineering), the manufacturer and Chamberlin bombarded NASA with variations on the Gemini that could perform missions to space stations, as space stations, and even a landing on the Moon. None got built, though a few came close. The real Geminis flew in 1965 and 1966, but by then Chamberlin had relinquished his position in the program and become a troubleshooter for all aspects of the Apollo spacecraft: Command Module, Service Module, and Lunar Module.

In 1970 Chamberlin left NASA and joined the company he’d worked with for a decade—now McDonnell Douglas after a merger with Douglas Aircraft. He first worked on McDonnell Douglas’ candidate for the Space Shuttle, but that competition was won by North American Aviation’s design. He then worked at McDonnell Douglas’ facility on-site at the Johnson Space Center until his death on March 8, 1981.

The Reusable Nuclear Shuttle: To the Moon, Again and Again

Sample Nuclear Shuttle configurations

A 1971 slide prepared by Marshall Space Flight Center showing an unloaded Nuclear Shuttle (top) and two configurations with a various components docked to its forward end (middle and bottom). Public domain image by NASA via Wikimedia Commons. Click for a larger view.

What it was: The solution NASA envisioned to the difficulty of getting large payloads to anywhere much beyond Earth with mere chemical rockets. Something like a dozen of them would serve as the brute force “trucks” of the American space program beyond Low Earth Orbit.

Details: We’ve already discussed some aspects of the Integrated Program Plan, NASA’s ambitious 1969 proposal to follow up the Apollo Moon landings with a new goal and new technology. The new goal was a manned Mars Mission, but the new technology had two particular pieces that would do the grunt work of building a space station and a Moon base as intermediate steps to the red planet: a reusable orbiting space plane (not yet dubbed the “Space Shuttle”) and the Reusable Nuclear Shuttle (RNS), many of which would have been built. It would have been the space plane’s role to get astronauts and cargo into low Earth orbit, while the RNS would have been used for the “high frontier”, so to speak. If something was going to go higher a few hundred kilometers, it would be offloaded from the spaceplane to an RNS, and then sent on its way—potentially to the Moon, or even beyond.

The RNS was suited for this task and similarly restricted from landing on Earth for one reason: their engines were given oomph by a nuclear reactor, but approaching one too closely at the wrong angle would expose a person to a fatal dose of radiation.

Start with the Nuclear Shuttle’s advantages. A variety of factors affect the power of a rocket, but the dominant number is the specific impulse (ISP) of the propellants it uses (to be precise, it’s a proportional measure of how much propellant the rocket has to use to add or subtract a given amount of velocity, though confusingly its unit is the second). With variations due to several other factors, rocket engines that use UDMH and N2O4 produce a specific impulse in the neighbourhood of 280 seconds, while LOX/LH2 is much more efficient at around 450 seconds (the low density of liquid hydrogen hamstrings it, though, so it’s often only used in upper stages where the rocket is already well underway and moving fast).

Unfortunately, all chemical fuels with a better ISP than that are either fantastically explosive, corrosive, toxic, or some hellacious combination of all three of those characteristics. Even at that, the best known ISP ever obtained (with a tripropellant of lithium, hydrogen, and fluorine) is 542 seconds.

Ultimately this because chemical propellants depend on chemical bonds, and there’s only so much energy you can contain in those. Quite early on rocket engineers realized that a good way to higher ISP was to use a different source of energy. In the absence of real exotics like nuclear fusion and matter/antimatter reactions, nuclear fission was the way to go. Hydrogen heated by a nuclear reactor can have an arbitrarily high ISP; it’s just a matter of how much heat one can get away with before the physical components of the engine are melted away.

When John F. Kennedy made his famous 1961 speech that started the race to the Moon he made a largely-forgotten reference to the Rover nuclear rocket, a contemporary project that was working on a preliminary nuclear-fission powered rocket. This in turn led to successively more advanced nuclear engines with the colourful names KIWI, Phoebus, and Peewee-1. By the end of 1969, NASA had a design for a functional nuclear rocket engine, the NERVA-2.

NERVA-2 would have had a specific impulse of 825 seconds in vacuum, and be able to burn for 20 minutes and produce 399.5 kilonewtons of thrust. Compare this to the J-2, NASA’s comparable workhorse engine (used on the second stage of the Saturn V, among others): it produced 486.2 kN of thrust, but was far less efficient at just 421 seconds of ISP. Accordingly, even though the NERVA-2 was far larger and heavier than the J-2 (having an entire nuclear reactor on board does that), the savings on propellant mass and the mass of the tanks needed to store it would make any spacecraft using one smaller than the same spacecraft based around a J-2.

Getting to the Moon is considerably more difficult than getting to orbit—you need to add another 3 to 4 kilometers per second to your orbital speed—and so the radically reduced fuel consumption of a NERVA-2 engine was very useful. Enter the Reusable Nuclear Shuttle. This was a conceptually simple ship: a single large fuel tank containing LH2 would have a NERVA-2 attached to one end, while the other had a docking adapter that could connect up to a variety of payload containers. Attach your payload, light the engine, and the RNS would push the payload into high orbit, to the Moon, or even beyond. Ideally you’d also put it on a trajectory which would let it return to Earth orbit, as the NERVA-2 was designed for ten round trips before it would be unsafe to light up again.

The disadvantage of the RNS lay in the radiation environment it produced. The rocket’s exhaust was only marginally radioactive and so arguably acceptable to allow on a launchpad, but in the event of a containment breach on the ground or, worse, in the air the engine would have sprayed uranium all over the environment. Even in the heady days of the late 1960s this was considered too risky, so the plan was to launch an RNS on top of a Saturn rocket using conventional fuels—if the Saturn blew up, the reactors were sufficiently ruggedized that they could survive the accident intact and fall into the ocean safely (by 1960s standards anyway).

What was more problematic was the NERVA-2 in orbit. Once the reactor was up and running it needed a great deal of shielding to protect approaching astronauts. As shielding was heavy, the RNS wasn’t going to have much of it. Instead the approach chosen was the have a “shadow shield”, where the propellant tank and any propellant aboard would provide most of the shielding. This meant that humans getting close to an RNS had to approach it from the front at a fairly shallow angle, using the bulk of the RNS to cover them from the reactor. If they approached from the sides or, God forbid, the aft where the engine was located they were assured of radiation sickness or death. Even on top of the RNS, a crew member would get about the recommended annual maximum radiation dose each time the engine fired.

Nevertheless, the advantages of the RNS outweighed the disadvantages in NASA’s collective mind, and the Integrated Program Plan called for it to be the workhorse of the space program beyond Earth orbit. Each would be used up to ten times (with refueling gingerly taking place after each use), after which it would be discarded in a high orbit due to its extreme residual radioactivity. With it, crews and payloads could be sent to the Moon and returned, and ultimately the American manned Mars mission craft envisioned for the early eighties would be perched on top of three of them.

What happened to make it fail: As with much of the IPP, the nuclear shuttle never got built because of a combination of disinterest from the Nixon administration and the falling budgets that that caused. Of all its parts, only the re-usable Space Shuttle and its rocket stack made it off the ground.

The RNS has its own particular story embedded in this larger tale, though. For many years the nuclear rocket engine program had been championed by New Mexico Senator Clinton P. Anderson, as much of the work on NERVA had been done at Los Alamos. Just as NERVA-2 was ready to become operational he became seriously ill and unable to press his case as much as he had in the past. The White House convinced Congress to pull the plug on the nuclear rocket on the grounds that it would be the basis of a manned mission to Mars, a goal about which Congress was quite negative at the time. The plan was that the freed-up funds could be used for the more-practical Boeing 2707, a Mach 2.7 supersonic commercial passenger plane similar to the Concorde or the Soviet Tu-144. Ironically, Anderson had enough clout remaining in the Senate to apparently engineer a 51-46 vote against moving ahead with that project; the House of Representatives soon followed. While the exact maneuvering involved has never been documented, the vote was widely considered retaliation for the cancellation of NERVA.

Regardless, with its funding quickly dwindling despite Congressional efforts to keep it going, NERVA was cancelled on January 5, 1973, and the Reusable Nuclear Shuttle was dead.

What was necessary for it to succeed: Like much of the Integrated Program Plan, the RNS was doomed by the political currents in Washington, within NASA, and in the general public. When it came down to picking something to move forward on NASA picked the Space Shuttle and the hope that one day they would be able to move on to a space station from there. The RNS ranked third (with the Moon base and Mars landing fourth and fifth) on their priority list, and they even tried very hard to claim that without the Space Shuttle they would not be able to get any nuclear shuttles into space. This was not actually true as the initial plan to use NERVA involved an upgraded Saturn rocket, but it was a measure of NASA’s determination to do anything to get the Space Shuttle built.

Ultimately that’s the main route to getting the RNS into the sky. NASA engaged in a great deal of internal debate from 1968 to 1970 over whether to continue with ballistic capsules or move on to a reusable, winged orbiter. Related to this was the debate over whether or not to focus on Earth orbit as a testing ground or push hard into the rest of the solar system. If both debates had gone the other way, a nuclear engine would have been very attractive to planetary mission planners and the money would have been there to continue with NERVA and the RNS–despite Congress’ objections to Mars missions, the presidential Office of Management and Budget had considerable discretion to ignore how it was told to allocate the money it received until a post-Nixon backlash in 1975.

Instead the arguments settled around a winged orbiter and sticking close into Earth unless the mission was unmanned, and we got the space program that we did from 1975 to the first decade of the 21st century. Nuclear rockets were revived for a short while during the days of the Strategic Defense Initiative’s Project Timberwind, but again it never came to anything.

Even if the RNS got built, there’s the possibility that it would have been much restricted in use or even cancelled outright no matter what successes it scored. The Three Mile Island accident in 1979 soured the American public on nuclear power in general, and after the Challenger explosion in 1986 NASA became very leery about dangerous payloads–for example, deciding against the planned Centaur-B booster that was to be orbited aboard STS-61-G later in the same year for the purposes of getting the Galileo probe to Jupiter. While both were specific incidents, they were each the culmination of long-term cultural trends that likely would have choked off the use of the RNS no later than the mid-1980s, and possibly earlier if one of them was involved in an accident.

Sidebar: Sonnengewehr, the “Sun Gun”

sonnengewehr

Illustration of the Sonnengewehr “Sun Gun” as published by Life magazine on July 23, 1945. Image copyright status unknown, possibly owned by Time, Inc.. Click for a larger view.

At the end of World War II the United States famously snapped up as many German scientists as it could with Operation Paperclip. While they were from a wide variety of disciplines, the ones most remembered today were the rocket designers and, as London and Amsterdam were still sporting spectacular V-2 craters, public interest in them was high at the time.

By the end of 1945 most of them would relocate to the United States, but in the period immediately following the end of fighting in Europe they were still in Western Europe and being interrogated by US intelligence personnel keen to learn about a line of weapons development in which the Nazis had jumped far ahead of the rest of the world.

It was in this setting that a few articles were published in major US newspapers and magazines (Time, Life, the New York Times and others) during July 1945 outlining one bit of information the US was getting from the captured scientists. All the articles were based on a single news conference held in Paris at the end of the previous month. While the conference apparently covered a wide variety of weapons that had been under development when the war ended, the articles picked up on one spectacular one and focused on it: the Sonnengewehr, quickly dubbed the “Sun Gun”.

The Sun Gun idea had been brought to the attention of the US by a group of scientists and engineers at Hillersleben, Germany (now part of the town of Westheide in Saxony-Anhalt, which was once part of East Germany). Though mostly unassociated with Wernher von Braun’s more-famous group they too had experience with rocketry, having worked on rocket-assisted artillery weapons and tank shells during the war.

As reported, in an unfortunately garbled way that makes it clear the reporters didn’t understand the underlying physics, the Sun Gun would have been a disc-shaped space station in a 3100-mile (5000-kilometer) orbit; some sources say 5100 miles, but this seems unlikely as German engineers would have expressed themselves in kilometers and that would be an unwieldy 8208 of them. Either way, neither would have been geosynchronous, an oddity pointed out even by some of the reporters in 1945.

Regardless, the station would have been coated with metallic sodium—chemically reactive and so easy to tarnish in the atmosphere, but which would stay clean in vacuum—polished into a mirror. The mirror would be pointed at a receiver off the coast of Europe and used to boil ocean water for power, but when the need arose it could be used on military targets—it had a projected ability to heat anything on the surface to 200 Celsius. Other numbers are scant and not clearly from the scientists themselves, but one that raises an eyebrow is that the mirror would have had an area of 5000 square miles (a round number in non-metric units, which is suspicious, and matches a diameter of 128.4 kilometers). Other sources suggest a much more realistic 9 square kilometers.

Life magazine was the most expansive on the topic, and published several drawings on the construction and operation of the station. Unfortunately their accompanying text and some of the details in the illustrations themselves suggest that the article’s authors were engaging in speculation on both topics. For example, they have the station being built of pre-made sections—cubes, oddly enough, which makes it a bit hard to produce a disk—when there’s reason to believe that it would have been made on a skeleton of long cables reeled out from a central station. Also contrary to this, Life has the inhabitable area around the edge of the disk, though this would have turned the Sonnengewehr into a “filled-in” version of the torus-shaped stations so favoured by von Braun during his lifetime

Immediate post-war reports to the contrary, it’s very unlikely that there was any sort of official work done on the Sonnengewehr beyond some tentative memos and discussions. If nothing else, consider the sheer mass of material that would have to be lifted into high orbit to build it. One source suggests one million tonnes of sodium metal, a figure considerably larger than the mass of everything ever lifted into orbit by all the world’s nations between 1957 and the present day.

Instead it seems to have been at best something batted around as a possible ultimate destination—even the scientists involved were thinking along the lines of the year 2000—in the culture of grandiosity that Nazism embraced and that also produced things like the Landkreuzer P. 1500 and Hitler’s architectural enabler Albert Speer. Even the mainstream rocketry program at Peenemünde was looking to run before it learned to walk, and this was just an extreme example of this attitude in the embryonic German space program. It may not have even been as tentative as that: at worst, it was merely discussions of an idea floated by the father of German rocketry, Hermann Oberth, in 1929.

Any gloss of reality the Sonnengewehr got likely came once the war was over and the Hillersleben group were under the control of the American military. In that precarious situation they would have been searching for anything to impress their captors of their usefulness and the Sun Gun inflated from cafeteria-table discussions to the preliminaries of a project. It did get them a little attention at the time, to be sure, but its sheer fantasticalness made it quickly drop back out of the limelight.

Kliper: Russia and Europe Try a Spaceplane

kliper-infographic

A schematic of the “permanent-wing” variation of the Kliper. The adapted Soyuz service module (hemisphere with docking pin at right) can be seen. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported image by Julio Perez Suarez, via Wikimedia Commons.

What it was: A 2004-2006 joint project between Russia and Europe to build a small lifting-body/winged vehicle to replace the Soyuz and provide both groups with their own access to the ISS, as well as future stations. It also would have been able to fly short missions on its own without docking to an orbital facility.

Details: The Soviet Union and then Russia have tried multiple times to replace the venerable Soyuz craft—the Zarya capsule, the OK-M spaceplane, and the Buran/Energia shuttles that nearly pulled it off, among others—but never have done so. As of this writing they’re working on the PPTS spaceship, which seems to be making slow, unsteady progress and might fly before 2020. All have foundered on either Soviet politics or post-Soviet money problems and it’s not that the Russians haven’t been innovative in trying to fix the latter. Immediately prior to PPTS, RKK Energiya made a big push to get the European Space Agency on board with Kliper.

Kliper was based on work that Energia had already done in the 1990s, particularly an elaboration of it in 2002 that was the first to be called “Kliper”. But by 2004 Russian relations with the ESA were at a high point: work had just begun on the Ensemble de Lancement Soyouz, a Soyuz rocket launch pad at the ESA’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, and so the Russians proposed expanding their co-operation to include a new spacecraft that would be launched on top of a substantially beefed-up version of the Soyuz, which they called “Onega” and eventually Soyuz-3.

The ESA’s Ariane 5 rocket was also powerful enough to lift a Kliper, but the Europeans were cool to the idea of launching anything but an unmanned ship on top of one. Even a Zenit rocket (derived from the side-boosters of the USSR’s last big rocket) was considered, but they’ve been under the control of the Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russians have been leery of using them since then. In all likelihood, Kliper would have launched on top of a new Angara rocket—but the Angaras are still years away as of this writing, and the model likeliest to lift a Kliper (the Angara 3A) hasn’t even been begun yet. That was inconvenient to talk about, though, so the Onega it was, despite the fact that the most powerful variant of the Soyuz fired up until the end of 2004 was only about half as powerful as the one that would be needed. This new rocket was given specifications, with the idea being that it would use the N-33 engines that were to have been used in attempt to stop the N1 from exploding before that ill-fated program was cancelled. That said, it was very much a substantial project on its own.

The Kliper itself was, in 2004, a purely biconic lifting body—which is to say it had no wings at all and relied on its fuselage shape for its lift. By 2005, though, it had gained two small wings with large canards—the Sukhoi Design Bureau was brought into the circle to help with this aspect of the project. With the wings extending a mere 205 centimeters to either side of the 390 centimeter fuselage, the Kliper was a small package either way.

Three-quarters of the craft’s length—everything from its nose to the wings—were the re-entry module which would house its crew and passengers on the trip to orbit and during their return. Behind it was a tripartite service module consisting of a repurposed and upgraded Soyuz service module, a collar of support electronics as well as propulsion tanks and rockets for orbital maneuvering, and an Emergency Recovery System (ERS), which would push the Kliper the rest of the way into orbit if the rocket it was on failed near the end of the ascent to space—and give the craft the final necessary kick to high orbit and the ISS when the rocket worked well. While in orbit the Kliper’s service module would deploy two rectangular solar arrays to supply the spacecraft with electricity.

A mission would begin with the rocket stack being assembled horizontally and the Kliper placed on it. The resulting assemblage, some 47 meters in length of which the Kliper took up 12, would be transported to the pad and hoisted into a vertical position next to the gantry. As with a typical Soyuz launch, the Onega (weighing some 700 tonnes fully fuelled, of which the Kliper and its contents would be 15 tonnes for the lifting body version and 16-17 tonnes for the various winged iterations) would fire its four outer boosters alongside the central rocket engine to get the craft underway, then after they had burned through their propellants they would separate. The central rocket would then throttle up to full and get the Kliper most of the way to 100 kilometers up.

Five minutes after launch the central rocket would also be out of fuel and would detach, at which point the Kliper would coast for 10 seconds, jettison the aerodynamic faring around its ERS, and burn those engines for three and a half minutes to climb into the a 130×370-kilometer high orbit. The ERS would then be ejected too. This would get the Kliper’s perigee to within a few tens of kilometers of the orbit occupied by the International Space Station, and one more burn by the service module’s thrusters a half-orbit and 45 minutes later would circularize the path taken by the craft and allow a final approach to the ISS over the course of a day or two.

The final design of the Kliper approached launch slightly differently, so that it could be fully reusable—rather than have an expendable ERS, the craft would be serviced by an orbital tug named PAROM. Kliper would get to a low orbit on top of its Soyuz-3 and the PAROM (which would be docked to the ISS most of the time) would sally forth from the station’s higher orbit, attach itself to the aft end of the Kliper, and then carry up to higher orbit and a station docking.

Upon arrival at the station the Kliper would back into its berth, using the usual Soyuz-style docking pin and station docking rings to bring the two together and establish a solid connection. By itself it could last five days in orbit, but it could linger for a year if attached to the ISS’ systems.

kliper-reentry

The wingless Kliper variant comes in for re-entry and landing. Image source unknown, believed to be RKK Energiya.

For re-entry the craft would reverse the maneuver that lifted the lowest point of its orbit so that now a half-orbit sees it dip into the atmosphere. A final burn at this point would keep the Kliper at that height and the approach to home would begin. From orbital speeds down to Mach 1 the Kliper would act as a pure lifting body, starting at a high angle of attack slowly tilting forward as its speed dropped. The goal at this point was to keep re-entry forces to less than 5g and ideally below 3, and temperatures to no more than 1500 Celsius. The version of Kliper with foldable wings would deploy them when the craft dropped below the speed of sound, and either these or the permanent wings of the other main winged design would make the Kliper considerably more controllable as well as increasing lift and flattening out the ship’s descent as it came into a runway landing—the permanently winged version had a cross-range capability of 1200 kilometers, quite similar to that of the US’ Space Shuttle. The pure lifting body version of the Kliper had it deploy a parawing as it made its final approach, and one way or another it would be down to 65 kilometers per hour or so before its wheeled landing gear touched the tarmac. The pilots and passengers would then exit (or be retrieved, if sufficiently enervated by weightlessness) through the hatch on the tail end of the craft.

When first proposed in 2004, the idea was to have the Kliper flying no later than 2012. The very final versions of Kliper, studied by the Russians as a solo project in 2008, aimed for 2018. Each Kliper would have been good for sixty missions over the course of a fifteen year lifetime.

What happened to make it fail: Reports are that the European Space Agency’s various national factions couldn’t come to an agreement with Russia and RKK Energiya. In particular they couldn’t convince a majority of Europe’s “Big Three” in space (Germany, France, and Italy) because all think that a large part of the ESA’s value is that it lets them develop local high-tech skills and industries. Kliper would have been built on Europe’s dime but be designed and built almost entirely in Russia; while the ESA would end up with a manned spacecraft and the necessary infrastructure to launch it at the end of the process (as well as the prestige value of a manned space program), that it and of itself was not worth the cost. By December 2005 any chance of Kliper being built as a co-operative project had disappeared and Russia simply didn’t have the finances to do it themselves.

The possibility of continuing to work with Russia was maintained in June 2006 when Roscosmos and the ESA reportedly agreed to study the so-called ACTS (Advanced Crew Transport System), but this was a ballistic capsule. By Spring 2008, though, the two had completely gone their separate ways, with the Russians carrying on developing an early design of the ACTS that would eventually become the current PPTS spacecraft project.

What was necessary for it to succeed: As mentioned earlier Russia has moved on to the PPTS, while Europe is in the process of converting their unmanned ATV—currently used to take supplies to ISS, and itself derived from the work on ACTS—into a service module for the upcoming American Orion Crew Module. Whether or not this turns into a permanent arrangement remains to be seen (currently it is only for one Orion mission, Exploration Mission-1, which is scheduled to make an unmanned loop and return around the Moon in 2017), but at the very least the ESA will have developed one half of a manned spacecraft. The contrast with the way they were going to get much less experience and skill development with Kliper should be noted. The ESA had begun talking about adapting the ATV into a manned craft of their own in May 2008, in the wake of the Kliper and ACTS proposals failing.

This is, then, the one way to get Kliper flying: square the circle of Russian ambitions to build a spacecraft that someone else paid for while also getting two of Germany, France, and Italy a sufficiently large chunk of the interesting development work that they would sign on. The wildcard here is Japan, which expressed interest in joining the program if the ESA signed on for certain, but was in the middle of a long, deep recession and so uninterested in giving major financial support unless the ESA did. But other under circumstances they may have supplied a trickle of money large enough to get Kliper going, then stayed with it despite the inevitable money-related delays if the ESA pulled out later.

German illustrator Armin Schieb has made available a free book of computer-generated images (his master’s thesis) of a simple Kliper mission from launch to hypothetical future space station to landing available through Google Books. It gives a good idea of how Kliper might have been.

http://arminschieb.com/tag/kliper/