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Max Faget: Master Builder
First appeared in OMNI magazine, April 1995, p. 62
Reproduced with permission of the author
Vladimir Titov and Gennadiy Strekalov were strapped into a capsule one night in 1983, waiting for the giant booster rocket beneath them to ignite and send them into orbit. Instead, a fire broke out on the launch pad. The cosmonauts would have perished in the blaze if their capsule had not been hurled clear by an ingenious escape system designed by a NASA engineer named Max Faget. Knowing a good thing when they saw one, the Soviets had copied the system, installed on all manned NASA spacecraft from Mercury on, for their own.
"No one has ever come and thanked me," Faget told me with a chuckle. "Whatever they give, the Red Star or whatever, they've never given it to me.
On that November afternoon, Titov and Strekalov were only too happy to bestow informally upon Faget the honor he had wistfully mused about for years. With ceremonial flourishes and genuine respect, they pinned to his lapel a Soviet space medal donated by a collector.
Before the meeting, Titov and Strekalov were told only that the "American Korolyov" wanted to meet with them, and to them that was reason enough to agree. Sergey Korolyov was the engineer whose genius created the Soviet triumphs of the early "space race," including the Vostok, Lunik, and Voskhod space vehicles. For years the Soviet government identified him only as the "chief designer," keeping his name secret until his death in 1966.
Faget, 15 years Korolyov's junior and still active to this day, is indeed the nearest American equivalent to Korolyov. His name appears on the official U.S. Patent Office documents registering the invention of the Mercury spacecraft, the space shuttle system, and a host of other crucial pieces of space hardware -- including the escape system to which Titov and Strekalov owe their lives. As director of engineering and development at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, he oversaw the development of the Apollo, Mercury, and Gemini space vehicles and the space shuttle. His complete list of professional awards extends to two single spaced pages in his official biography.
Faget's name was never kept a state secret, but nonetheless, it remains so unfamiliar to the U.S. public that it might as well have been. Considering his accomplishments, why haven't his name and face been burned into the American consciousness like those of the Mercury 7, John F. Kennedy, and others connected with the U.S, race to the moon?
Unfortunately, Faget is not the stuff that media dreams are made of. Shy and diminutive, he's possessed of whimsical intonation, an uninspiring appearance, and a predilection for bow ties. So like Korolyov, Faget remained in the background all those years, invisible to the public but indispensable to NASA, while others appeared on magazine covers and TV broadcasts. Faget himself scoffs at the notion of being the "chief designer of American spaceships." "This is not that kind of country," he says. "Nobody is appointed by the king to be the royal spaceship designer.
Max Faget was born in British Honduras (now Belize) to American parents a few years after World War I. His physician father was working in Central America as an employee of the British government after all British physicians had been sent to the trenches in France. Dr. Guy Faget, a noted specialist in tropical diseases, is credited with finding the first practical treatment for leprosy.
As a child, Max Faget remembers building lots of airplane models, reading Astounding Science Fiction, and wanting to become an engineer. He attended Louisiana State University and graduated at the height of World War II. Faget, the future spaceship builder, initially wound up under water, a junior officer on a combat submarine in the Pacific.
With the war behind him and his engineering diploma still fresh, Faget set out for the government's flight research center in Langley, Virginia, to look for a job. He got one, just as the challenge of supersonic flight appeared. With no access to good wind tunnels and only rudimentary computational and analytic tools, Faget and his fellow engineers were faced with the task of investigating the problems associated with breaking the sound barrier. They soon decided to take the practical approach-flight-testing small models. Faget's model-building skills, honed in childhood, blossomed along with his aerodynamic intuition.
Faget's flight research work quickly boosted him up the ladder of responsibility. At times, he led small, ad hoc teams on specific projects, becoming the head of the performance aerodynamics branch of the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division. Shortly after the Space Age truly began, he was appointed to the position of chief of the Flight Systems Division. When President Kennedy called for a manned lunar landing three years later, Faget was the logical choice to be named director of engineering at the new space center in Houston, a post he held for the next 20 years.
He turned out to be the right choice as well, intuitively knowing how hardware interacted in flight on a complex vehicle and the best ways to prove the safety of a design. His engineering judgment supplied what answers his intuition didn't.
Faget's first major task as director of engineering was developing the design of the Mercury capsule, a spacecraft upon which he unmistakably left his mark. "I will maintain to this day that it would be very difficult to design a more efficient spacecraft to do the job that the Mercury had to do other than the final design we came up with," he states.
Remarkably, during the same period of intense creative work, he also conceived the Scout and Little Joe solid fueled research rockets and designed the initial warhead shape for the submarine-based Polaris missiles.
A detractor once sniffed that "Faget only really had one good idea, and he stole that," referring to the blunt shape of the Mercury capsule, which Faget based on the aerodynamic principles first established by engineer Harvey Allen in the mid 1950s. But Faget's talent has always rested on his wide ranging knowledge of alternative designs and his instinctive choice of the best one available, often with some subtle but highly original twist. The Mercury capsule's escape tower --the device that saved Titov and Strekalov -- provides a classic example of his engineering ingenuity.
When NASA began developing the one-man Mercury ship in 1958, even the most optimistic engineers held little hope for raising the booster reliability to much above 75 percent. When the booster failed, they knew that it would probably do so catastrophically. So the spacecraft and any astronauts inside had to have an instantaneous way of getting clear if either were to survive. One proposed recovery system called for small booster engines -- glorified versions of the JATO (Jet-Assisted Take Off) engines that had helped airplanes get airborne since World War II --mounted on the side of the capsule. Another option required the pilot to use an ejection seat with its own rocket pack. But making either these rockets or the JATO engines strong enough to get clear fast enough meant that they couldn't be steered accurately.
Faget recalled a simple device used in early flight tests of models, developed by Woody Blanchard, one of his engineers. The "tractor rocket" system consisted of a powerful solid-fuel rocket attached to the model by a long cable. Once the rocket fired, it was kept on course by the trailing model's air drag. In addition, the rocket usually had several nozzles to direct its exhaust slightly away to the sides in order to avoid scorching the model.
Faget knew that, if needed to save an astronaut, the rocket would have to fire immediately. It had to be already secured in its forward position, above the capsule, since there would be no time to deploy it on a cable--as was done with the models--and then fire it. This in turn required that the rocket be attached to the capsule with a rigid tower, rather than the tension-tightened line used with the models.
Faget's escape-tower concept was tested, accepted, and built into the Mercury system, with the astronaut, an on-board autopilot, and ground command each capable of triggering it. While none of NASA's manned spacecraft ever had to put Faget's invention to actual use, as the Russians did, the engineer did on one occasion see how his design really worked.
He attended the launch of an unmanned Mercury capsule on an Atlas rocket in May 1961--a rare occurrence in itself, because Faget rarely went to launches. "To watch a flight is not that big a deal," he told Omni "if you're not involved, it's just a lot of standing around to watch it go off." Faget is not comfortable just standing around, and so during the entire Apollo program, he witnessed only one blastoff. He has never seen a space shuttle launch.
On that spring day 34 years ago, he watched the Atlas head up into a cloud with its precious cargo--and explode. "The cloud lit all up," he says. "You could see the cloud turn gold. It was up pretty high, and it takes a long while to hear the first bang. But we got the capsule back."
Again and again in his career at NASA, Faget used flight-testing experience to come up with "new" ideas to solve new problems. In the mid 1970s, Faget drew on his experience building model airplanes to illustrate the soundness of the idea of test-flying the space shuttle from the back of a 747 carrier aircraft. When doubters claimed the two craft could never separate safely, Faget recalled that, while in college, he had built and flown a powered tandem model that had worked just fine.
Seeing things from a different angle was another strength, and he sometimes made dramatic demonstrations of this. A gymnast in college, Faget liked to leap over chairs in conference rooms or to stand on his head "to improve blood circulation in my brain," as he put it. With keys and coins falling out of his pockets, Faget would calmly discuss the engineering questions on the agenda.
Faget's wit and bold style manifested themselves in other ways as well. An amateur sailor, for years he kept a portrait of John Paul Jones on his office wall, with the quotation "I will not have anything to do with ships which do not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm's way." He was known to explain concisely the major difference between doing research for the 1950s National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics and its 1958 successor, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, by writing the initials NACA & NASA on a blackboard. Grinning impishly, Faget made two quick, vertical chalk strokes; the blackboard now read NAC/A & NA$A, and the difference was obvious.
Despite his reputation as a meticulous engineer, Faget always retained his instinct for high-performance flight testing, an instinct that sometimes proved more accurate than exhaustive theoretical calculations. He even has a space souvenir to make the case for his intuition: a simple piece of blue plastic wrapper.
One of his early Apollo design questions was how much heat shielding to install on the lee side of the Apollo capsule to protect it when it reentered the earth's atmosphere upon returning from the moon. "Based on intuition, not calculations, I said you didn't need to put anything on it," Faget says. "But the people who were doing calculations were ultraconservative. They put about an inch of ablative material on the lee side. Sure enough, when the thing reentered, it still had its thin mylar dust sheet. So my intuition would have saved at least four or five pounds a square foot, carried all the way to the moon and back, absolutely useless.
Faget didn't win some other, more significant engineering battles either. He fought against the big central window in the Mercury capsule on weight and strength grounds, but the pilots won. He wanted a single, central window in Apollo's lunar module instead of two smaller side windows, arguing that the increased field of view made it practical for just one crew member to pilot the module down to the lunar surface and back. NASA, of course, chose to put two crew members aboard the module, but the Russians followed Faget's design for their abortive 'man-on-the-moon effort. He preferred single-segment, solid-fuel boosters for the space shuttle, a design that probably would have prevented the Challenger disaster. But because only one company had a factory close enough to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to transport such structures, NASA changed the design to multiple-segment boosters so that other rocket companies could compete for the contract.
The final NASA space-shuttle design changed in other ways, too, from the plan that Faget originally patented. But he's not disappointed. "She really is a very marvelous machine," he says. "However, it could have been better. He pauses, smiles, and admits with pride, "I don't think an awful lot better.
Faget left NASA in 1981, after the space shuttle's second flight, to pursue space engineering challenges. Both NASA and the outside world had changed, and Faget's new projects -- as innovative and practical as ever -- never met with as much success as his famous space designs for Mercury, Apollo, and the space shuttle. He headed a small firm called Space Industries, which, over the next ten years, developed two modest but potentially powerful spacecraft designs. Both promised to satisfy operational needs much more cheaply than NASA's big-budget alternatives.
Space Industries designed the Industrial Space Facility as a Greyhound-bus sized module that operated unmanned, with automated equipment for producing pharmaceuticals, metals, and other valuable materials. The space shuttle would occasionally visit to service it, harvest the products, reload the equipment, and the shuttle would in turn receive power from the module's solar batteries to extend its flight time. Faget and a small band of co-workers (including ex-astronaut Joe Allen) came up with simple, reliable, cheap, and fully adequate systems to make the spacecraft work. Some of them even cherished the notion that when the module was launched into orbit on a space shuttle, Faget himself would ride into space as a payload specialist. But NASA, fearful that a small but successful Space platform could threaten congressional support for the grandiose space station Freedom, saw to it that the project got little or no support in Washington.
The company's other spacecraft, the Comet, was to have been a small, recoverable unmanned space vehicle intended to perform various orbital missions and then bring the results back to earth. It would have gone into space on a new, privately developed, small booster. Again, Faget assembled an optimal combination of proven technologies and innovative design. But as performance requirements and budget plans changed from month to month, the original program proved impossible to complete. It may, however, be revived, Faget says.
Still, Space Industries and Faget have kept right on designing. Space Industries produced the Wake Shield Facility, a revolutionary spacecraft aimed at improving the purity of space vacuum for industrial processing. It was launched into space early in 1994, and its concept proved sound, although the freak failure of one "off-the-shelf" component prevented a full test of the vehicle. The second Wake Shield flight, with improved components, is scheduled for this summer.
Today, Faget looks back to the years of the "space race" and recognizes what he and his associates achieved before NASA metamorphosed into another federal bureaucracy. "It was an accomplishment of the species to be able to get free of the planet's gravity, he says. One popular misconception he still objects to is that it was "easy" to get to the moon. Faget endorses an observation made to him years after the last Apollo flight by Robert Gilruth, who had managed the space center in Houston during the race to the moon and who, as a young engineer, had first hired Faget for NACA in 1946. "Max, we're going to go back there one day, Gilruth prophesied, "and when we do, they're going to find out it's tough."
It was indeed tough to get to the moon. Max Faget knows that better than anyone; he was there from start to finish, testing models, designing unconventional spacecraft, improvising remarkable solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Without him, humans would never have walked on the moon, and without someone like him at NASA or its future counterpart, we'll never walk there again.
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