“The group weren’t waiting for long before Max Faget walked into the room. Carrying a garment bag, the impish chief engineer, five feet six inches in his bow tie, jumped up on a desk in front of them. They had seen this kind of thing before from their boss, Faget was prone to performing handstands whenever and wherever he thought he needed to get the blood flowing to his brain, seemingly unconcerned about his pockets empting noisily onto the floor. Standing on the desk, Faget unzipped the bag and pulled out a handmade balsa wood and paper model airplane. Hand-finished spars ribbing the cigar-shaped fuselage and straight wings were visible beneath the model’s translucent pale brown skin. At the front was an upturned snub of a nose; at the back a pair of vertical fins mounted at each end of the horizontal tail. It was a shape unfamiliar to those watching the performance, and Faget was keen to explain it to them. ‘It’s stable in two attitudes,’ he declared in his syrupy Cajun accent. ‘Zero degrees angle of attack. . .’ The designer raised the model in his hand then launched it from on top of the desk, watching it fly gently across the room before skittering over the hard floor. One of the audience retrieved the model and returned it to Faget, So far, so unremarkable. ‘And,‘ Faget continued, lining up his creation by eye before launching it again, nose high and tail low, ‘sixty degrees angle of attack.’ Instead of flying horizontally, nose first, the glider presented its underside to the direction of travel, not so much flying as falling forward through the air. But it was doing so in as settled and undramatic a fashion as it had when it was flying more conventionally. To the gathering of NASA engineers, Faget’s point was clear: this was a winged airplane capable of reentering the atmosphere from space as safely as the blunt-bodied capsules that had so far returned America’s astronauts to Earth. ‘We are going to build the next-generation spacecraft,’ Faget told them.”
The excerpt above is taken word for word from Rowland White’s book Into the Black (Touchstone – Simon & Schuster 2016). The event described took place on April 1, 1969 placing it three and a half months ahead of the first manned moon landing and the end of the entire Apollo program by some three years. It reminds us that NASA was engineering the Apollo program’s replacement craft before Apollo had achieved its primary goal of landing men on the lunar surface. It is in stark contrast to the position we currently find ourselves in as we pay the Russian space agency Roscosmos hefty sums to ferry our astronauts to and back from the International Space Station and have been doing it since the Space Shuttle program ended with the last flight of Atlantis in 2011. We are getting closer to having our own man-rated capsules for future crew transfer flights, but whether they come from one of the civilian programs currently working on them (like SpaceX or Blue Origin) or from NASA itself, it seems rather short sighted that we ended the Shuttle program before we had a replacement ready to roll. Be it the politics of the day, the budgetary gamesmanship of our own government offices, or just plain stupidity emanating from too many agencies to point fingers at, the end result is that we are funding a good deal of the Russian space program buying rides to space. White’s book takes us back to the very beginning of the Space Shuttle program and pulls no punches in giving credit where credit is due or blame where it is deserved. Max Faget is just one of the many players who are part of the Shuttle story, but he is one of the oddest choices as a driving wheel considering how he felt about returning spacecraft from orbit back in the pre-Shuttle days.
As the director of Engineering and Development at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Max Faget was willing to bet a bottle of whiskey on his statement that, “In my lifetime, all spacecraft will land on parachutes.” Not long after the 1957 flight of the USSR’s Sputnik satellite, it was Faget who championed “scrunching a man into a blunt-bodied capsule”, a simple, lightweight option that would return astronauts to Earth tethered to a parachute for the final descent. He had, after all, helped develop the Navy’s Polaris missile warheads and those small, blunt capsules were what he knew best. The director of the Manned Spacecraft Center, and Faget’s boss, Dr. Robert Gilruth sat in on some Air Force task force meetings discussing their need for a ‘space plane’. Knowing how Faget felt about the topic, Gilruth suggested that Max give it some thought.
NASA was the big dog in terms of manned space flight in the early 1960s, but the Air Force harbored their own plans for having a space station serviced by some form of space plane. Gilruth figured there might be some common ground between the NASA and Air Force plans. He decided that Faget was just the man to sort it all out. He said, “Max, these guys are talking about a crazy thing. Why don’t you look at it and see what it’s all about.” Faget responded to the challenge and returned from his fact finding tour with exactly what Gilruth was hoping to hear: “Bob, you know it maybe feasible.” After testing some preliminary designs with his colleague Caldwell Jones, Faget called the hush hush meeting of engineers who witnessed the lifting body demonstration described in the opening paragraph of this article. The Space Task Group had envisioned a permanent orbiting space station, and moon base and a space plane to service them all and Max Faget began laying the foundation to make it all happen. The Air Force, on the other hand, had a different goal and it dealt with reconnaissance from space, not science.
The Air Force vision of space revolved around the use of satellites to keep an eye on the rest of the world. They spent a lot of money and research time on how to take reconnaissance photos from space and return them to Earth. There were no options for real time telemetry from space in those early days. They found remote photography could be done, but not with the fast turnaround time needed during the volatile Cold War period. They rightly concluded that a Manned Orbiting Laboratory would be the ticket and they began covertly training their own astronauts. The astronauts in training joked that they were always ‘three years from launch’ as the MOL project time table kept being reset. Just about the time the orbiting lab, space capsule, cameras and astronauts were finally coming together, the project was cancelled. New developments in digital components needed for ‘filmless’ photo surveillance rendered the need for a manned platform moot. Both the digital and manned programs were becoming expensive, so one of them had to go. Suddenly, fourteen men who had picked the Air Force program as their ride to space found themselves without any program at all.
Max Faget’s team went into overdrive and as the manned moon landings kept the public entranced, they worked behind the scenes to invent the next-generation spacecraft. The concept was simple enough: design a reusable vehicle that left Earth like a rocket and returned as a plane. Each design presented different payload capabilities and picking one design that would offer the most mission options wasn’t an easy task. One option copied an early Air Force design for a space plane called the DinaSoar that had been scrapped in favor of Faget’s capsule. Faget wanted to see a massive 204 foot long rocket plane that would piggy back the smaller vehicle to an altitude where the shuttle’s own engines could propel it into orbit. Faget’s team eventually tried out more than 75 prototype models before settling on the one that dotted the most ‘i’s and crossed the most ‘t’s. In the end, the Space Shuttle design we are familiar with (orbiter, large external fuel tank and two solid fuel booster rockets, one on each side) was a trade off between the need for larger cargo space and the kick needed to get it into orbit.
As for the fourteen MOL astronauts, they investigated various options to continue their flying careers. In that the MOL program had been a ‘black’ or classified exercise, none of the pilots would be allowed to fly combat missions in Vietnam for a two year period to negate the possibility of being shot down and interrogated. One of them finally suggested calling NASA to find out if they could continue their astronaut careers there. They were given the grand tour just after the Apollo 10 mission circled the Moon and sent a lunar lander on descent without actually landing on the Moon. The chief of the astronaut office, Deke Slayton, informed them that he already had more astronauts on hand than he had rides for. George Mueller, head of the manned space office in Washington, convinced Slayton that bringing in the Air Force guys might curry some favor for NASA within the Air Force. Ultimately, seven of them joined the NASA team and were told to find something to do until their time to ride a rocket arrived. Perhaps testing the Space Potty in zero-g conditions aboard the K-135 Vomit Comet* wasn’t glamorous duty, but it kept them in the que for a future ride to space. (*The Vomit Comet was a modified K-135 tanker that would fly large parabolic arcs allowing the astronauts could experience weightlessness for a minute or so as the plane flew over the top of each upward arc – anyone who gets car-sick can vouch for the name).
The inaugural Shuttle Flight would be a first for the manned space program. It would be the first time a vehicle would not be tested in a full launch before a crew climbed into the seats. The lucky crew selected to fly the new bird consisted of NASA veteran John Young and Bob Crippen, one of the MOL astronauts brought into the program at Mueller’s request. On April 10. 1981, the first operational flight of the Space Shuttle opened a new chapter in manned space flight. There were highlights (deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope and probes like Magellan and Galileo), lows (the Challenger and Columbia disasters) but for better or worse, the Space Shuttle came closer to meeting the original Space Task Force’s vision than anyone ever expected. The Air Force efforts to put a manned observation post in space failed, but one of their astronauts managed to be on the historical first Shuttle flight.
What the public got to see on the TV was a few brave men and women riding fiery rocket trails into space. I, for one, am glad that people like Rowland White dig beyond the headlines and evening news and tell us the stories that lead up to the flights. They say that history is written by the winners, but there are equal parts of history that are written by those who lay the first blocks of the foundation and then end up waiting until the second story is being constructed before they get to take their shot. Having grown up during the golden age when humans were making their first small steps into Earth orbit, the part of the story we witnessed on the evening news was only part of the story. I have never been one to put any credence on the ‘Moon landings were faked’ stuff, but with the military jockeying for the strategic high ground during the Cold War, it doesn’t surprise me at all that there was a black ops space program being worked on. We should be glad others looking forward took great pains to keep the high ground of space neutral territory.
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