NASA has accomplished much since it first opened its doors Oct. 1, 1958. Behind the scenes of NASA’s many successes was one of the organization’s driving innovators, Dr. Maxime “Max” Faget.
He was a bright engineer who had a talent for designing spacecraft and the skills to propel America to the forefront of the space race. At the time of Faget’s passing on Oct. 9, 2004, he was a global space icon. Quite the accomplishment for a boy from Belize with a hobby for assembling model planes and a dream to be an engineer.
Contributing to NASA’s mission
Max Faget realized his childhood dream in 1943, when he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Louisiana State University. He served as a submarine naval officer during WWII following his graduation from school. In 1946, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to NASA, at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.
Faget’s early research centered around ramjets. However, in 1954, his research took the brilliant engineer to new levels. He became involved in the planning studies for the X-15 research plane, which included investigating how to attain faster speeds. The team was met with challenges to this goal like the intense heat generated by such significant speeds.
Work conducted by fellow NACA research scientist, H. Julian “Harvey” Allen, captured the imagination of Faget. Allen held the idea that blunt bodies offered greater protection from the heat generated by higher speeds. It was this element of his research that would ultimately inspire Faget’s design of the one-man, blunt-ended Mercury capsule.
Faget’s Mercury capsule design beat out other proposed concepts for America’s first space program and became the nation’s greatest hope to beat the Soviets into space. Although America did not meet this goal, Project Mercury did place six astronauts in space. Four of these missions orbited the Earth, including John Glenn’s historic flight aboard “Friendship 7,” where he became the first American in orbit.
Faget even conceived and patented the Mercury escape tower, designed to provide a way out for astronauts should something go wrong on the launch pad. It was never used by Americans. However, the Russians did rely on the tower to provide an escape for the cosmonauts in a 1983 launch pad fire.
After Project Mercury, Faget assisted with numerous follow-up programs.
Faget led the initial design and analysis teams that studied the feasibility of a flight to the Moon. His work with Apollo helped to commit the U.S. to a lunar landing by the end of the 60s.
Faget was later credited by William Readdy, former Associated Administrator for Space Operations at NASA, for the massive accomplishment. “His genius allowed us to compete and win the space race to the Moon,” Readdy said.
Near the end of his career, Faget researched the feasibility of the space shuttle and assisted in its development.
“There never was a machine imagined like the shuttle before there was the shuttle,” Faget said. “Embodied in that one machine you have a launch vehicle, you’ve got a spacecraft, and you’ve got a reentry airplane, not a reentry vehicle.”
A space icon
In 1981, Faget retired from NASA and in 1982, he established Space Industries Inc. He died at the age of 83 in 2004.
Of Faget, legendary flight director Chris Kraft said, “He was a true icon of the space program. There is no one in space flight history in this or any other country who has had a larger impact on man’s quest in space exploration.” Talk about a tough act to follow!
A reminder of Faget’s genius lies not far from the entrance at Space Center Houston. During your next visit, stop by Starship Gallery to view the flown “Faith 7” Mercury capsule, which was built according to Faget’s design concept.