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.

“Big G”: Getting to Orbit Post-Apollo


A schematic of one Big G configuration. The original Gemini capsule can be seen on the left, while everything from the passenger compartment on to the right was new. The adapter on the far right was designed to allow yet another cargo module, space lab, or habitation/life3 support module depending on the mission. Public domain image from a short briefing document given to NASA in December 1967. Click for a larger view.

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.


A clear view of the third, cylindrical module which would have been used for some Big G missions. Public domain image dating to 1969 via the NASA publication SP-4011 Skylab: A Chronology.

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.


Coming in for a dry-land landing under its triangular parachute, the Rogallo wing. Public domain image from McDonnell Douglas briefing to NASA, December 1967.

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.

Gemini Lunar Flyby: Always the Bridesmaid


The most ambitious of three different proposals to fly a Gemini by the Moon, all made during the Gemini’s short heyday of 1964-66. This version of the capsule would have been mounted on an Agena-D rocket stage that could brake it into Lunar orbit and then send it back to Earth. The Gemini/Agena in turn would have been mounted on a Centaur for the initial trip from Earth orbit to the Moon. Image from Gemini Applications for Lunar Reconnaissance. Click for larger view.

What it was: A series of 1964-65 proposals to use the Gemini capsule as the core of a manned Lunar flyby mission, or even a Lunar orbiter.

Details: NASA was committed to the Apollo spacecraft for journeys to the Moon, and had begun development on it before work began on the Gemini. At first Gemini had been intended solely to build on the Mercury program (it was originally named “Mercury Mark II”), as a way of giving astronauts practice in the orbital docking and spacewalking techniques they’d need for the Apollo missions. Jim Chamberlin did try to sneak two circumlunar flights into the original Gemini plan of August 1961, but they were gone in a week; he’d try again with a Gemini Lunar lander in 1962, and still get nowhere. In essence the program was just supposed to fill the relatively short time between the last Mercury flight on May 15, 1963 and the flight of the first, unmanned Apollo sometime in 1966.

But then the Gemini proved itself to be a capable little spacecraft. From March 1965 to November 1966 it was flown on twelve missions with only one partial failure, Gemini 8. Both McDonnell Aircraft (which made the Gemini capsule) and Martin Marietta (which made the Gemini launcher, the Titan II GLV) had been shut out of Apollo and so they set about making the plausible argument for a Gemini Lunar flyby again rather than have NASA trust entirely to the as-yet untried Apollo spacecraft.

And so it was that one proposal from McDonnell dropped on to NASA desks in April 1964, shortly after the first unmanned Gemini flight. Another came in from Martin Marietta in July 1965—right in the middle of Gemini’s successful run. Both were based on the premise that the Moon landing was going to happen with Apollo no matter what they said, but that a prior Lunar flyby was still an open question.


The alignment for the Earth, Sun, and Moon for the flyby mission that would give maximum coverage of the Lunar far side while also allowing photography of the proposed Apollo landing on the Sea of Tranquility. Image from Gemini Applications for Lunar Reconnaissance. Click for larger view.

McDonnell’s proposal was actually three wrapped up into one, unified by the goal of performing Lunar reconnaissance for the Apollo landings. The least ambitious of these was a single-flyby spacecraft made up of a modified Gemini capsule, the base of which was mated to a Centaur rocket stage. By not loading the Centaur entirely with propellants this arrangement was just light enough that a Saturn IB could lift it into Earth orbit while still providing enough propulsion to send it on a free-return trajectory around the Moon. There it could either focus on photographing the Sea of Tranquility while also photo-mapping the Lunar far-side to an extent, or alternatively it could look at those two targets with the opposite priority. In return for getting only one pass at the Moon and having to cut down on the amount of fuel the craft carried, this proposal had the advantage of being a single-launch, no-rendezvous mission.

Next, McDonnell proposed two missions that used two launches instead, but with the compensating advantage of putting the craft into Lunar orbit so that much more mapping was possible. The first put the Gemini—with a modified service module—base down onto an Agena-D rocket stage, a combination that could be launched into low Earth orbit together by a Saturn IB. A second Saturn IB would be used to send a Centaur rocket into orbit, and then the Gemini/Agena would dock nose-first into it. The Centaur would fire and send the Gemini/Agena into a translunar trajectory, then separate once its propellant was spent.

68 hours later the Agena would fire and bring the ship into a 150 × 20 kilometer Lunar orbit, with the perilune arranged over the proposed Apollo landing site so that it could take extremely high quality photographs of the area. After 24 hours of orbiting the Moon and shooting pictures, the astronauts would fire the Agena again to head back to Earth. There the Gemini would separate from the spent rocket stage and splashdown, returning the crew home just shy of a week after they left.

The second of McDonnell’s orbital proposals was quite similar, the major difference being that instead of using an Agena-D as the Lunar orbital and return stage this version had a massively altered service module carrying its own engines. There’d be extra development time and money needed for this version of the mission, but in return it saved almost 700 kilograms in launch weight to supplement the thin margin for error involved in launching the Gemini/Agena combination aboard a Saturn IB.

A bit more than a year later Martin Marietta moved in with their proposal. As the manufacturer of the Gemini’s launch vehicle, their idea didn’t have anything to do with a Saturn rocket. This was a real problem as Martin Marietta launchers could at most, assuming a Titan IIIC with its strap-on boosters, lift some 13,100 kilograms into orbit (contrast that with the Saturn IB’s 21,000kg). Accordingly there were no Lunar orbiters here, and even the Lunar flyby required two launches. Of course from Martin Marietta’s standpoint this was not a problem: they were more than willing to sell NASA two Titans if that was what it took.

In fact they even managed to work in a third. Not only would the Gemini launch by itself on a Titan II GLV and the Lunar injection stage on a Titan IIIC, the injection stage itself was not an Agena or a Centaur, but rather another stripped-down Titan III upper Transtage (its specific name, confusingly enough, since it’s just one example of a trans-stage used throughout the years) mated to an Agena docking adapter.


The Gemini docked to the Titan Transtage that would push it into a flyby orbit. Note how the astronauts had their backs to the direction of travel; in contrast to the Lunar orbiter shown above, the Gemini flyby missions pushed the capsule backwards to its destination. Image from Rendezvous Concept for Circumlunar Flyby in 1967, Click for a larger view.

Despite the different equipment, this meant that the mission they proposed was essentially a recapitulation of Jim Chamberlin’s 1961 proposal—one presumes that they were hoping that the at-the-time recent success of the Gemini and the Titan II GLV would override James Webb’s veto. If it did and the mission flew, the idea was to launch the Transtage and the Gemini within a few minutes of one another (or, if absolutely necessary, launch the Gemini after the trans-stage had made most of one orbit and was coming back over Cape Canaveral). After maneuvering their capsule into the vicinity of the Transtage the astronauts would dock their Gemini nose-first to it and then use it to fire them into a free return orbit around the Moon.

Perhaps because they’d heard nothing encouraging back from NASA in the year since they’d made their own proposals, McDonnell backed this mission too; the pair even managed to rope in Pete Conrad, who would soon fly on Gemini 5, to advocate for them in a meeting with NASA’s top people on June 24, 1965. Like the earlier McDonnell proposals, Martin Marietta aimed to perform the Lunar flyby sometime in 1967, in April to be precise, and do it for US$350 million.

What happened to make it fail: McDonnell’s proposals likely went nowhere because they backed the wrong horse when they pitched them as Lunar reconnaissance missions. NASA already had plans for site mapping using the Lunar Orbiters and even a back-up plan using Apollo, the LM&SS. The latter was actually handled in part by Lockheed, and so it’s unclear why they thought NASA needed a back-up for the back-up.

Martin Marietta’s attempt failed for a more fundamental reason. They quite astutely positioned theirs as a spectacular, primarily for the purpose of beating the Soviet Union to a Lunar flyby. This was bound to pique some interest because at the time NASA’s attitude was that they were going to lose that particular race; the Moon landing had been specifically selected in 1961 as the first major one that the US could definitely take from the Russians. In the actual event it turned out that the Zond program was in trouble and Apollo 8 would take this particular laurel, but hindsight is 20/20.

As a result, NASA was supremely focused on Apollo and the Moon landing. In stark contrast to the shambolic Soviet program in the mid-60s, they picked their goal and their program and they stuck to it. While there was some late sentiment for an early flyby with a Gemini, NASA’s upper management felt it would be a distraction. There was only so much money and, more importantly, so much engineering talent in the organization, and looking away from the Moon landing to anything else was just going to delay their final goal. They were willing to give up a Lunar flyby if it got them the manned Moon landing instead. History, in both the American success with Apollo and Soviet failure with their equivalent of the Gemini Lunar Flyby, Zond, suggests that they were right.

What was necessary for it to succeed: Any of these missions could have flown if it had been only a matter of technical specs.  Their margins for error were slim, and there was a good chance that they would have lost a crew, but all four possibilities were well within NASA’s capabilities.

Some organizational impulse toward flying them was all that was really necessary. Ultimately it comes down to the fact that NASA had conceded the Lunar flyby race to the Russians already, and felt no need to go all out for one. If they beat the Soviets with an Apollo flyby, so much the better, but they weren’t going to deviate from that plan. It likely would have taken considerable external political pressure to cause a deviation—how you generate this is up to you. While Pete Conrad was able to fire a little interest for the Gemini flyby in Congress in the real world, James Webb was able to tamp it back down again.

Conrad did get one little victory out of his advocacy for a Lunar flyby. When he flew his second Gemini mission, Gemini 11 in September 1966, his goal was to dock with an Agena—as was usual in Gemini rendezvous tests. Conrad was, however, given permission to use the arrangement to boost himself and Richard Gordon to an apogee of 1369 kilometers. It was a miniature version of the mission he had wanted to fly a year previous, and set the record for a human being going furthest from the Earth. Apart from the Apollo missions to the Moon that followed, it still holds that record.

Project 714 and Shuguang-1: The First Chinese Space Program

Cutaway and regular view of Shuguang-1 spacecraft, as well as it mounted on a Long March 2 rocket

A conjectural cutaway and regular view of Shuguang-1 spacecraft, as well as it mounted on a Long March 2 rocket, based partly on what we know about the craft and partly what we know about the Gemini on which is was based. Image © Mark Wade of, used with permission. Click for a larger view.

What it was: The first serious attempt by China to put a person into orbit, starting in 1966 though really only getting going in 1971. Using a capsule called Shuguang-1 (“Dawn-1”, 曙光一号 in Chinese) they looked to launch a Gemini-like two-taikonaut craft on top of a beefed-up Long March 2 rocket before the start of 1974. The name derives from April 1971, when the decision to go with a two-man capsule was made.

Details: The Chinese first planned to put up a satellite in 1959, but the usual delays pushed the date into the Sino-Soviet split and the USSR withdrew the technicians and plans the Chinese were relying on in June 1960. Nevertheless, the Chinese committed to an indigenous missile and space program and pushed on. By 1966 the first steps to a manned space flight had begun. China’s first suborbital animal test flights on top of a DF-2 ballistic missile were scheduled for May 1966 but that month marked the start of the Cultural Revolution. The Academy of Sciences was taken over by the Red Guards and outside of the ballistic missile program (which was protected by Zhou Enlai) rocketry research in China ground to a halt for two years.

In April 1968 the main scientists involved (particularly Qian Xuesen, the American-trained father of Chinese rocketry) had been rehabilitated and the manned space program reorganized under military control, which gave them a degree of cover from the Red Guards. In April 1970 China launched its first unmanned satellite, Dongfanghong-1 (东方红一号 or “The East is Red-1”), and Mao Zedong publicly announced that China was working on a manned craft.

Taikonaut selection began in October of the same year, with nineteen of them picked out by March 15, 1971. The next month then saw the aforementioned conference that settled on a two-man capsule based on what was publicly known about the US’s Gemini. Wang Xiji, who had designed the Long March 1 that lofted Dongfanghong-1, was selected as the capsule’s main designer.

Shuguang-1 never got off paper, but what we know about it suggests the same basic setup as a Gemini capsule. There was a forward re-entry capsule meant to house two and an aft equipment module. Like the Gemini, the equipment module was designed to sever in two just before re-entry, exposing four retrorockets that would bend its trajectory back to Earth and not incidentally lighten it to make its return through the atmosphere less rough. Even so, it’s estimated that the journey would be considerably rougher on its passengers than either a Mercury or Vostok: up to 11 G’s on the ride to orbit and 8 G’s on re-entry. Despite its relatively large size it would have been lighter than a Gemini or even a Vostok, easily the lightest two-man capsule ever built, and as part of the return on that its taikonauts would have had to suffer 150 decibels during the launch. It’s unknown if it would have landed on solid ground or on water, though it’s worth noting that the Chinese did develop a small squadron of ships to let them communicate with satellites when they weren’t over Chinese territory—they may have been intended to serve double-duty and recover crew capsules after an ocean splashdown.

What happened to make it fail: The proximate cause of the program’s cancellation was the apparent closeness of the project to General Lin Biao. The anointed successor of Mao Zedong, he fell out of favour and then died in a plane crash under murky circumstances on September 13, 1971. The Chinese government announced that he had been involved in a plot against them, and they eventually came to the conclusion that Project 714 was the hub of the conspiracy (some of their evidence was the fact that 7-1-4 in Mandarin is a homophone for the words “Armed Uprising”). Though the space program supposedly continued through the rest of the decade, there’s no evidence that any progress was made after May 1972. Wang Xiji was targeted, but remained free to work on unmanned satellites; Xue Lun, head of the taikonaut group, was purged and the cadre of taikonauts was released back to their units. Mao apparently changed his mind about the manned space program too, and refused to give even minimal funds when asked for them.

More basically, Project 714’s problem was that it took place almost entirely within the Cultural Revolution—which makes it astonishing that it even got as far as it did. Scientists and engineers were at considerable risk of exile and imprisonment during the time period and universities were unable to train anyone, so skills were in short supply. As the program was officially secret, they were unable to gain official protection from any Politburo member and were a wide-open target.

China’s economy hit a nadir in the same time frame, and so money was an enormous issue too. In 1970 the entire Chinese GDP was about US$110 billion, and the Apollo program cost roughly US$2 billion per year at a time when the US economy ranged from six to nine times larger (and almost 40 times per capita). Even the USSR’s economy was about 40% the size of the US’s. There was no possible way the Chinese government could come up with those kinds of funds and there’s evidence that they didn’t try very hard. One source reports that the project headquarters had a grand total of one telephone.

What was necessary for it to succeed: China had a brief period of economic reform in the few years between the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (roughly 1961-66). If it had continued, rather than falling prey to an increasingly paranoid and eccentric Mao, the Chinese manned space program at least had a chance.

The main piece of evidence for this is China’s FSW satellites, which were also designed by the man selected to design Shuguang-1: Wang Xiji. This remarkably good unmanned satellite was designed to re-enter from orbit and soft-land somewhere in China, and furthermore it was somewhat larger than the manned Mercury capsule (1800kg as compared to 1355kg, and the Vostok’s 4730kg). They flew successfully, including a re-entry, three times between 1975 and 1978. There are even rumours, likely wrong, that the Chinese had a failed manned launch of an FSW-derived capsule in 1980.

Rumours aside, the Chinese had some of the necessary technology to put an astronaut into space by the early 80s, despite the horrible dislocations the country had gone through since 1931. A two-decade head start on the 1980s economic reforms (though unlikely to have been as successful as the ones that actually did happen) would have given a Chinese government sufficiently interested in a propaganda coup the wherewithal to become the third country to launch a man into space almost two decades before they actually did it.

One small aspect of Project 714 did come to fruition. Xichang in Sichuan Province was selected as the site for its launch facility, and while very little was done at the time it became the third of China’s three main spaceports in 1984.

Lunar Gemini: Take Two to the Moon

Gemini III Lunar Lander schematic

A schematic of the most capable of the proposed Gemini lunar landers, the Lunar Gemini III. Public domain image from Direct Flight Apollo Study, Volume II: Gemini Spacecraft Applications, written for NASA by McDonnell Aircraft in 1962. Click for a larger view.

What it was: A direct-ascent lunar lander based on the Gemini capsule, which would be mated to a lower landing and ascent stage and a rocket stage that would get it to the Moon. Two men would travel in it, land on the Moon, and return to Earth in it, no docking required.

Details: One of the main factors that made the United States the winners of Kennedy’s lunar landing challenge was their focus. In contrast with the Russian program, which was constantly torn between three visionary designers (Korolev, Glushko, and Chelomei), the Americans settled on one way of getting to the Moon and stuck to it. The parameters of the Apollo program—three men launched on a Saturn V in a Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) craft—were all set by early 1963. From there it was a steady run for the next six-and-a-half years to the lunar landing, disrupted only by the Apollo 1 fire.

One thing that nearly upset this single-mindedness was the Gemini capsule. It was originally intended as a time-filling experimental craft that would use the gap between the end of Mercury capsule flights on May 15, 1963 and the first planned Apollo test flights. When Lunar Orbit Rendezvous was selected as the Moon mission’s approach, however, McDonnell Aircraft—manufacturer of the Gemini—pointed out that this would mean only two astronauts would go down to the surface. If only two were landing, why not just send two? The Gemini had fourteen days of endurance, after all, and it was only six days to the Moon and back if all went well. McDonnell worked up a way to create a lunar landing craft out of a Gemini that could be sent on a direct-ascent mission to the Moon, the approach that NASA had favoured until the surprising sea change of Spring 1961 that lead to the LOR decision.

In all McDonnell came up with three versions of the craft, dubbed the Lunar Gemini I, II, and III based on how different they were from the orbiting Gemini they were also in the process of building. The Model I was most similar, down to the use of ejector seats for the crew if something went wrong during the initial launch from Cape Canaveral. Its main difference was a modification to the side of the capsule above the left-hand crew member’s head so that there would be a bubble canopy he could look out. Model II was modified to re-enter over water (at the time, the orbital Gemini was being built to come in over land, and so was the Model I Lunar Gemini), with the resulting weight savings allowing for an upgrade to the navigation system and the installation of Apollo’s beefed-up communications system. Model III was most different, including an escape tower to replace the ejector seats, re-entry over water, and a rearrangement of the seats and windows that will be discussed later. All three were also to be equipped with the planned Apollo landing radar.

Besides the other modifications to the capsule, the Lunar Geminis would be built so they could mate to three other pieces, a terminal engine module, a landing gear stage, and a retrograde module. The whole works was then to be attached to the top of a Saturn V which would launch it into Earth orbit. Once in orbit the landing legs would be exposed by ejecting aerodynamic fairings used to protect those fragile structures from the slipstream during ascent.

The retrograde module’s engine would then fire the Lunar Gemini away from Earth towards to Moon, perform mid-course corrections, and insert it into lunar orbit. The module’s final responsibility would be to knock the craft out of lunar orbit into the descent phase, slowing it down until it was only 1800 meters above the surface.

At 1800 meters the retrograde module would have been jettisoned to crash elsewhere on the Moon and the last distance to the ground covered by the terminal landing module’s engine with the capsule and landing stage perched on top.

This touchdown would have been the most hair-raising part of the mission for the Lunar Gemini I and II. As with the regular orbiting Gemini the crew faced towards the nose of the capsule in these two, which is to say they were pointing away from the Moon as the craft backed into a landing. While the co-pilot worked the controls of the lander and watched the Moon in a deployable rear-view mirror, the pilot needed to turn around and observe the lunar surface out of the side of the capsule. That way he could look for a clear area large enough to land in and call out a course to the man working the controls. The plan was to supply him with the aforementioned bubble canopy to give him a 180-degree field of view; if engineering difficulties arose during development the alternative solution was to depressurize the cabin and have the pilot lie prone on his seat back while sticking his head out of the capsule’s opened hatch!

The Lunar Gemini III thankfully proposed rotating the crew seats so that they were side-facing and replaced the windows of the orbital Gemini so that the astronauts could see out to land—much like the Apollo LM was to do.

After touchdown, the astronauts would stay on the Moon for a day, and then the capsule and terminal landing engine would launch for return to Earth while leaving the landing gear behind. This diminished craft would be able to get home directly, without having to stop in lunar orbit like the Apollo program’s LOR.

On arrival at Earth six days after the start of the mission, the Lunar Gemini capsule would detach from the rest of the craft and bring the astronauts home. Models II and III would splashdown with the help of parachutes, while the I model would glide into an airstrip on US soil with the help of landing skids and a Rogallo wing—what we would call today a hang glider, an invention of NASA’s aerospace-focused predecessor NACA. The last remaining change to the Gemini capsule would come into play here: as a direct return from the Moon is faster than a return from low Earth orbit, all three models of the Lunar Gemini would have had a thicker heat shield than their orbital counterpart.

What happened to make it fail: NASA stayed focused and staved off all suggestions that they go with anything other than a three-man, LOR configuration. President Kennedy’s science advisor Jerome Wiesner was the highest-placed advocate of using the Lunar Gemini, but a confrontation with NASA director James Webb eventually eliminated any chance of it by the end of October 1962.

Their refusal stemmed from a couple of good objections to the two-man direct descent approach. The Lunar Gemini had much less redundancy than the Apollo CSM/LM combination, which made its missions considerably chancier. Apollo 13 proved their decision by giving Lovell, Swigert, and Haise the LM to use as a lifeboat, letting them eke out their resources on the way back to home. A Lunar Gemini crew had no such option.

NASA had also studied the Lunar Gemini I and II’s pilot-backwards landing configuration in other contexts and couldn’t come up with a way to do it that satisfied them. Lunar Gemini III was the only arrangement that went for a setup like that used by Apollo, and had to creep up in weight towards the Apollo CSM/LM combination to do it. That meant there was less incentive to move away from their initial plan.

What was necessary for it to succeed: If the Russians had been able to keep Sergei Korolev’s initial lunar landing program going, rather than having it fall into disarray during 1964-65, then the US might have been panicked into switching horses. At the very least US intelligence would have had to conclude that the Soviet Union was on track for a lunar landing in 1967 or ‘68, regardless of whether or not they actually were. This is not entirely unlikely: consider the Uragan space interceptor, which the CIA and industry insiders became convinced the Russians were developing during the 1980s. It apparently never existed.

The Jim Chamberlin-designed Gemini capsule was surprisingly capable, so the Lunar Gemini would probably have worked. The proposal suggested a landing during the first half of 1967, but it would have had to wait until no earlier than 1968 as the craft depended on the Saturn V and that rocket wasn’t ready to go until then—as late as January 1967 one of its stages exploded during testing. The shortcut to the Moon, in other words, would not actually have been that short.

The main difficulty with Lunar Gemini lay with, as mentioned earlier, its lack of redundancy. The crude landing systems of the Gemini I and II would have also produced problems. Consider the famous episode of the last few seconds of Apollo 11’s landing as Neil Armstrong worked feverishly to find a clear landing spot and only just succeeded despite flying a craft more capable than the two lesser Geminis.

So there would have been a Gemini-based lunar landing if NASA had decided to go that way, but the program would have chanced more failures and outright disasters. Mapping it on the Apollo missions has “Gemini 11” aborting at the very last second if NASA has gone with the Gemini I or II, as its pilot can’t find a place to put down. “Gemini 12” succeeds, but then “Gemini 13” is an unmitigated disaster: its astronauts have no place to go after their capsule fails and die while en route to the Moon. Whether or not there’d be a “Gemini 14” through “17” after that is an open question.

The Manned Orbiting Laboratory: A USAF Space Station


An artistic view of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the last gasp of the USAF’s manned space program. Public domain image via the San Diego Air and Space Museum archives. Click for larger view.

What is was: A small space station based on the Gemini capsule, to be used by the United States Air Force for reconnaissance and as a platform to study military applications of space. It would have been launched in one piece and carry two men for a thirty-day mission; one variant was intended for longer missions.

Details: When NASA was created in 1958, the United States had no less than four manned space programs. As well as the new civilian agency, the Army, Navy, and Air Force were all interested in putting humans into orbit. The Navy’s was the least far along, and while they did test a prototype lunar lander their whole program soon fell by the wayside. Similarly the Army agreed to the transfer of Werner von Braun’s rocketry team and all the Army’s facilities to NASA in October 1959. It too was out of the game quickly.

The Air Force was the one that kept on reaching for space after that, though starting in 1961 they were forced to work in co-operation with NASA. First the two developed the rather successful X-15 spaceplane together, and then they moved onto developing the X-20 “Dynasoar”. Before that second, more capable spaceplane could be begun in earnest, though, it was cancelled and its role transferred to a new project in December 1963: The Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL).

In fact the Air Force’s space program nearly died right there as the initial proposal was that NASA would do all the work and then just fly the Air Force’s astronauts for them. NASA pushed back, however, uneasy with the role of building a military space station; as a civilian agency, one of their founding principles was the peaceful use of space. The compromise reached in January 1964 was that NASA would give them support, but the MOL would be the Air Force’s baby.

At first the goal of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory was purely research: to determine what the long-term effects of being in space would be on the human body (when the MOL was approved, the space duration record was just shy of five days), and to determine what military operations could be done in space.

Cutaway view of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory

A cutaway view of one configuration of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. Click for larger view. Public Domain image from the USAF.

The basic plan for the MOL took the two-man Gemini capsule and rebuilt it so that it could serve as the command module of a larger craft. This so-called Gemini B was placed on top of a larger crew cabin, which in turn sat on top of a mission module which could be swapped in and out depending on that particular MOL launch’s goal. There were at least three modules planned: one for earth sciences study, one for astronomy, and one for testing space subsystems like solar panels and laser communications. The portions of the station below the Gemini B would be accessed through a hatch cut through the capsule’s heat shield—an approach that caused concern at first, but turned out to be viable after a test launch and re-entry on November 3, 1966. The capsule would then be put in hibernation while the station was occupied and, after the mission was over, it would be reoccupied, detached from the habitation and mission modules, and used to return to Earth. After the astronauts splashed down, the station would then be allowed to decay out of orbit on its own.

The whole thing was at first to be lofted on top of a Titan IIIC rocket, but by early 1966 the station had grown in size to the point that a specialized Titan with enhanced strap-on boosters, the Titan IIIM, was put into development. By the time the program reached its end, the idea of using the even more capable Saturn IB was being mooted.

Meanwhile the purely research mission of the MOL was deemed too expensive to justify and its goals were accordingly expanded. The initial mission parameters had quite specifically arranged for the MOL to be launched into an equatorial orbit that never exceeded 36 degrees of inclination; this meant that the MOL would never pass over the Soviet Union, specifically to avoid a military reconnaissance mission except to the extent that photography from orbit would be tested with an eye to a future program. So as it became clear that pure research was a no-go, a reconnaissance mission was added in 1965 and the capabilities of the station upgraded. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara also authorized three contractors in the aerospace industry to study what else the MOL could do. The Air Force started development of the KH-10 camera for the MOL and also began upgrading Vandenberg Air Force Base into the United States’ second major space launch facility after Cape Canaveral so that a higher inclination orbit could be reached.

Just as the Manned Orbiting Laboratory was gearing up, it ran headlong into Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs and the cost of the Vietnam War. The United States’ budget was strained to the limit and the MOL consistently got the short end of the stick. The Air Force estimated they needed US$600 million in 1968 to develop it and got $430 million instead. This pushed back the program’s first launch from late 1969 to late 1970. The next year was no better. Estimates for 1969 were from US$600 to US$640 million, and they were to be given $515 million.

After Richard Nixon was elected at the end of 1968 the numbers got even worse. The first manned launch slipped to mid-1972, and then the US economy dipped into recession and the amount of money available dropped again.  Without an infusion of more cash the program literally could not move forward, and it was becoming apparent that the unmanned Keyhole satellites were going to match the performance of the KH-10 on the station. A radical rethink was necessary.

What happened to make it fail: A perfect storm of circumstances. First, Robert McNamara was replaced as Secretary of Defense. His technophilia and interest in space had helped protect the MOL despite his otherwise strong tendency to consolidate programs.

Second, as the Keyhole satellites proved their worth the MOL was left entirely as a platform for research into what the Air Force might want to do in space. It became, quite literally, a solution in search of a problem.

Third, the Vietnam War was eating up money for the military, and it was necessary to cut many programs to their cores. Something as speculative as the MOL, without an active military purpose now that reconnaissance was out of the picture, wasn’t going to survive.

Finally, with the Apollo program on the brink of success NASA was ceasing to be the focus of public and political interest and no longer could resist an attempt to merge the Air Force and civilian programs as they had done in 1963-64. On June 10, 1969 the new Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird informed Congress that he was cancelling the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. At the same time the new NASA administrator, Tom Paine, was pushing for a new spaceplane to follow on to the Apollo program. To his chagrin he got what he wanted but only if the MOL’s missions were folded into what would become the Space Shuttle (much to the detriment of its design).

What was necessary for it to succeed: Several things would have had to broken differently for the MOL to fly. Its main backer in high places was Robert McNamara, and he resigned as Secretary of Defense a few months before the 1968 presidential election that removed the Democratic Party from that office entirely. If he had stayed on, and had the election been lost by Nixon, then it might have flown. Taken as a whole, this is not a likely possibility.

Past that, the MOL’s real problem was the lack of a mission. Even with McNamara behind it, the Air Force’s space program had been slowly dying on the vine since the early 60s. Once McNamara was replaced, the only thing that was going to keep it from being folded into NASA was something to do. As long as it stayed a pure research mission, it was going to be at the tail end of the queue for money and resources where cancellation would always loom.