Jason Foodman
4 min readJun 8, 2020

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A Brief History US Space Capsule Design and the Impact of Max Faget

One man’s genius was instrumental in the design of the Mercury spacecraft and played a major role in the subsequent designs of Gemini, Apollo and even the Space Shuttle.

The first step humans took on another celestial body may have been taken by one man, but it was the efforts of some 400,000 people who made it possible. Astronauts piloted the rockets and landers, but the achievement was the result of an army of engineers, mission controllers, mathematicians, caterers, scientists, programmers, doctors and contractors. More than 20,000 industrial firms and universities contributed with science, design and products in the Apollo missions. The story of Apollo however goes much further back and is essentially the evolution of flight itself. The very first flight of 120 feet occurred in 1903 and it wasn’t until 1947 that the first supersonic flight occurred (Chuck Yeager piloting a USAF aircraft nicknamed “Glamorous Glennis” in honor of his wife). Around that same time a young engineer and former Naval submariner in WWII, Dr. Maxime Faget, joined the Langley Research Center and began pioneering research into supersonic flight. His work played a pivotal role in the creation of the X-15, a hyper-sonic rocket-powered aircraft that was as much spaceship as aircraft. The X-15 set numerous speed and altitude records in the 1960s including reaching an altitude of 102,100 feet — making the pilots of this aircraft in effect the first astronauts.

Dr. Faget went on to be named head of the Performance Aerodynamics Branch where he conceived and proposed the development of a one-man spacecraft which went on to become the Mercury spacecraft. The famed Space Task Group was created during this time, tasked with executing the Mercury program (the United States first man-in-space program). Mercury was a great success and included six manned flights between 1961 and 1963.

I spoke with Nanette Faget Johnson, Dr. Faget’s daughter who told me: “My Dad espoused that the way to get to space and back was not with a winged supersonic airplane, but with a blunt bodied capsule, quite a radical departure from the current thinking at the time.”

The final flight of the Mercury Program was Mercury 9, also known as Faith 7 (the 7 is in honor of the original 7 astronauts). Here is Faith 7, on top of its Atlas-D booster (a converted ballistic missile — it’s safe to say that anyone strapped in on top of an Atlas-D booster definitely has guts), awaiting launch in May 1963:

Faith-7 on top of its Atlas-D Booster — Image Credit: NASA

Faith 7 was a huge success — Astronaut L. Gordon Cooper, Jr. completed 22 orbits (enabling NASA to study the effects of a full day in space). This is the corner of the actual Cabin Pressure Envelope design for Faith 7 (the design is a piece of history I am fortunate enough to own, unfortunately it is ¼ scale and I don’t have a wall big enough to put it on), signed by Dr. Faget its lead designer and L. Gordon Cooper:

Image of Cabin Pressure Envelope-Floatation with L. Gordon Cooper autograph
Dr. Faget’s signature from Cabin Pressure Envelope-Floatation diagram

Orbiting a manned spacecraft and the lessons we learned about man’s ability to function in space enabled President Kennedy to make the commitment of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth by 1969. Mercury also laid the groundwork for Project Gemini which necessitated a larger capsule to carry two men (and perfecting space docking maneuvers which would be essential for a lunar landing). Once again, Dr. Faget played a pivotal role in the capsule design which shared many of the design points from Mercury. Dr. Faget went on to play a key role in the design of the Apollo spacecraft and then in 1972 filed a patent for a space shuttle design he called DC-3. His career spanned four decades, during which Dr. Faget was a significant contributor to all manned space flight from Mercury to the Space Shuttle.

In a sense, Neil, Buzz and Michael were the tip of the spear — their incredible achievement was made possible by over 400,000 men and women working together and when it comes to the capsules very much so by Dr. Faget. Max’s genius was a key factor enabling the US to compete and ultimately land first on the Moon. It’s amazing that one man over the course of his career had such an amazing influence on the United States and worlds technological and specifically aeronautical evolution, thank you Dr. Faget.

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Jason Foodman

Jason Foodman is a Writer and well known Entrepreneur. He holds a US Coast Guard 100-Ton Master's License and writes about business, and space related topics.