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 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.

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