Five and one-half decades have now passed since a young President John F. Kennedy rallied a nation behind a bold challenge to send an American to the Moon and safely back before the end of that decade. We did this, and even better — putting four of our citizens on the lunar surface and returning them by 1969, plus delivered two more into lunar orbit who returned with them. Within three more years, eight others had walked on the Moon on successful round-trip voyages, along with four more orbital companions.
An invitation to write an article about the Apollo legacy for the upcoming February issue of Newsmax magazine’s America section prompts me to fondly remember many among these now-departed souls my life has been honored and enriched to know. One, whose legendary behind the scenes technical contributions made Apollo possible, exemplifies and personifies the American character and spirit that created that legacy.
Maxime (Max) Faget, who served as the first Chief Engineer at NASA’s Johnson Spaceflight Center, was a technical genius who developed many of the innovative concepts that were incorporated into all manned U.S. spacecraft. Included are the characteristic gum drop capsules for projects Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the straight-winged design of the Space Shuttle.
Born in British Honduras on August 26, 1921, Max trained in mechanical engineering at San Francisco Junior College and Louisiana State University before doing submarine duty off the coast of Vietnam during World War II. In 1946, following naval service, he was hired by the Pilotless Aircraft Division at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Laboratory at Langley Field, Virginia, which later evolved to become NASA. NACA’s head, Robert Gilruth, later became the first director of NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Max’s early NACA work, which involved solving aerodynamic problems to enable aircraft to fly faster and higher, led to the design of the hypersonic X-15 which achieved Mach 6. These activities later shifted to the design of ballistic missiles.
The Russians had large launch vehicles at that time, whereas the U.S., which had developed a small atomic device, hadn’t needed them. Our only realistic launch system capable of reaching Earth orbit, the Atlas, was much lighter, with an extremely thin steel skin that was only supported by internal pressure.
NACA was engaged with planning Project Mercury when the Soviet Union launched a big surprise — the first human in space. As Max commented in a June 1997 NASA interview: “I think higher management was probably aware of the fact that the Russians were making progress — but it never trickled down to the level of the troops in the trenches, that’s for sure.”
Max continued, “Nevertheless, we were able to get our first flight off with [Alan] Shepard just a matter of weeks after Yuri Gagarin went into orbit, and I really think that timing made it possible for the President [Kennedy] to jump on the fact that we were in a race with the Russians and that he wanted to win.”
At the NASA Johnson Space Center’s top engineer, Max carried the one-man Mercury project through to a two-person Gemini and three-person Apollo capsule along with a two-vehicle Lunar Module landing and ascent system. Gemini was critical to develop and test sophisticated orbital rendezvous, docking and extravehicular activity capabilities which made Apollo possible.
Around the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, Max led a small group at the NASA Johnson Space Center to plan for an orbital laboratory where people could work to understand microgravity effects both on people and physical processes. That activity led to the development of the Space Shuttle Program.
Although the Shuttle was a technological masterpiece, Max was critical of a NASA decision to attach small relatively propulsion-inefficient 12-foot-diameter, segmented, solid-fuel booster rockets. This non-optimal design was dictated by transportation limitations imposed by shipping them through railroad tunnels from Utah. He also strongly faulted NASA for not fully recognizing and avoiding the cold weather solid rocket seal hazard that resulted in the tragic launch failure of Space Shuttle Challenger.
Upon retiring from NASA, Max joined with me and two other partners, Gilllermo (Gui) Trotti and James Calaway, to privately develop and operate a Shuttle-delivered, Earth-orbiting, commercial Industrial Space Facility (ISF) for weightless experiments. The company, Space Industries International, was later headed (after Max) by five-mission Shuttle astronaut Joe Allen. Our board members included Robert Gilruth, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, and other very distinguished individuals.
Although the ISF was never built, the high-tech company grew through mergers and acquisitions to employ more than 8,000 professional employees. Entirely by coincidence, I also served with Max on the board of another company that developed enormously large high-altitude balloons used for edge-of space weather recordings. To me, his brilliant spirit will always speak as the smartest technical voice in any room.