What it was: A 1967 proposal by McDonnell Douglas to build a new Gemini spacecraft with an extra module attached to its aft end. This would be the craft for flying astronauts to and supplying the proposed space stations—both civilian and military—that were to follow the Apollo landings. It would have been able to deliver twelve people (ten on top of the pilot and co-pilot of the original Gemini) and 2500 kilograms of cargo to low Earth orbit; with an optional extension module it could have taken 27,300 kilograms.
Details: NASA was well into post-Apollo planning by 1967 and at that early stage it was far from settled that they were going to go for a spaceplane as their next major spacecraft. Even if they did go for one, some (including Wernher von Braun) felt that an interim system was needed until what was slowly turning into the Space Shuttle was ready. Basic research on lifting bodies was still underway and while landing on land was already considered desirable, at the time NASA’s chief spacecraft designer Max Faget favoured doing so with a ballistic capsule using a device that the agency had been working on for years: a Rogallo parawing to brake its descent.
While there had been discussions about using the parawing with an Apollo capsule, the Gemini had the advantage in that it was the one where that program had begun; it had progressed as far as manned drop tests—Jack Swigert of “Houston, we’ve had a problem here” fame started his career as an astronaut flying a Gemini mockup under a parawing. McDonnell Douglas then sweetened the pot by reconfiguring their Gemini B so that it had the same base diameter as an Apollo capsule (making it simple to attach to a Saturn rocket) while giving twice the cargo capacity of its competitor. A modification of the Apollo CSM had studied in the years prior to Big G, and the so-called MODAP could match this increase, and even go beyond it with external cargo capsules—but then this is where the Big G’s cylindrical extension module came in and blew the Apollo derivative out of the water.
The Gemini B had begun as a logistics craft for the USAF’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory that, for the purposes of this discussion, had one important difference from the regular Gemini. It needed to be able to dock to the MOL and the most reasonable way to do so was at its aft end. This necessitated cutting a hatch into the capsule’s heat shield. While this looked like a dangerous strategy on the surface, it was proven to work and it became possible to attach other things to the Gemini B’s underside. For the basic Big G this was a truncated cone that increased the base diameter of the new craft to match that of the Apollo spacecraft, making it easier to mate it with Apollo hardware—and not just rockets. While they preferred their own cylindrical module for the third module that made a regular Big G into the nearly thirty-ton large cargo craft, McDonnell Douglas also came up with a side proposal to use Apollo Service Modules in that slot if NASA so desired.
The Big G was designed to be launched by one of three rockets. In its smallest configuration, it would be lofted by a Titan IIIM, a man-rated version of the Titan III which the USAF had started working on as a rocket for the Dyna-Soar program and then moved over to the MOL when Dyna-Soar was cancelled. This was the least powerful of the three alternatives, and would have been able to launch only the basic Big G. For one with the full complement of extra modules the choices were one of two Saturn variants that NASA was interested in building, either the Saturn INT-11 (the first stage of a Saturn V with four of the strap-on boosters used for the Titan IIIM) or the Saturn INT-20 (which would have consisted of a Saturn V’s third stage directly mated to the same rocket’s first stage).
As Big G was proposed not long after the Apollo 1 fire, it was designed to use an oxygen and helium mixture for its atmosphere, a difference from the pure oxygen of the original Geminis. The interior of the craft was also heavily reworked, with all of its systems upgraded and improved from the original’s. After all, as successful as it had been the previously flown Gemini had been only the second model of spacecraft flown by the United States.
When launched the Big G could have flown directly to a space station of short resupply or astronaut delivery-or-return missions. Alternatively the third module could be adapted to be a mini space lab, or a life support and habitation module capable of stretching the flight to 45 days; when the Big G was first being discussed, the then-record longest spaceflight of 13 days, 8 hours, 35 minutes had been achieved in an original model Gemini.
As previously mentioned, the end of the mission would see the re-entry capsule of the Big G bring its astronauts home to somewhere in the United States by landing with a Rogallo wing. The capsule itself would have three landing skids that would cushion the impact of swooping into the ground, and then bring the vehicle to a stop.
Using the Big G as its transportation backbone, NASA’s hope was to have a 12-man space station in orbit by the time the Space Shuttle was ready to fly in 1975 (to use what turned out to be the optimistic estimate of 1969).
What happened to make it fail: The late 60s were an era of falling budgets for NASA, and there was a great deal of concern that the cost of launches was going to sink the manned space program—the Saturn V was notoriously expensive on a per kilogram-to-LEO basis (one figure, adjusted for inflation to modern dollars is $US22,000 per kilogram). Prices were anticipated to come down, but in general even the cheapest expendable launch vehicles have only beaten this figure by about a factor of three.
A re-usable launch vehicle had the promising appeal of bringing these costs down a great deal (projections, unfortunately based on unrealistic launch schedules, ranged as low as $US1,400 per kilogram). For crew return this made a glider of some sort necessary—either a lifting body or a winged craft—and when a high cross-range capability in NASA’s next spacecraft was cemented as desirable about 1970, wings became an absolute necessity. All possibility of a capsule, Big G included, fell by the wayside.
What was necessary for it to succeed: In retrospect the Space Shuttle looks like a mistake—its most basic reason for existence was to be a cheaper way to orbit than missions launched on expendable launchers and it never did so—most calculations pin it as more expensive per kilogram to orbit than the already expensive Saturn rockets it replaced. It’s important not to apply too much hindsight to this decision, but even in 1969 there were signs that sticking with capsules for manned spaceflight was the way to go. NASA had a strong constituency for this approach including, at first, the chief designer for the manned spaceflight program Max Faget. If he had stayed on-board with capsules, there’s a good chance that things would have turned out that way.
If they’d decided to go with a capsule, the two main options were continuing using Apollo spacecraft or building the Big G. Apollo had the advantage of still being in production, and it could have been launched on very similar rockets to the ones suggested for Big G. Big G, as mentioned, had the advantage of considerably more cargo space. Which of the two would have been picked comes down to an impossible-to-settle question of which advantage would be seen as tipping the scale.
The other possibility is that the Shuttle could have gone ahead, but that NASA could have realized just how long it was going to take before it flew: instead of going to space in 1975 its first mission was pushed back to April 12, 1981. If in 1967-69 they had had a better handle on the challenge they faced, the idea of using Big G as an interim logistics craft until the Space Shuttle was ready to fly would have been more attractive. The only problem with this scenario is that the Shuttle’s development costs put a big dent in NASA’s budget through the 1970s, so the space station that the Big G would have supported would have been hard to build while also going ahead with the orbiters.