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Mercury capsule designer Max Faget dies

October 10, 2004 — Max Faget, who in the late 1950s designed the United States first manned spacecraft, died Saturday at his home in Houston, Texas. He was 83.

As NASA's director of engineering and development for the Manned Spacecraft Center (later renamed Johnson Space Center), from 1962 to 1981, Dr. Maxime A. Faget led the capsule design for Project Mercury and the Apollo command and service modules, as well as for the Space Shuttle orbiter.

"Without Max Faget's innovative designs and thoughtful approach to problem solving, America's space program would have had trouble getting off the ground," NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said.

"He also was an aeronautics pioneer. In fact, it was his work on supersonic flight research that eventually led to his interest in space flight," said O'Keefe.

Beginning his career designing supersonic aircraft as a part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) propulsion and performance team at Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Faget contributed to the design of the X-15, an experimental plane that flew Mach 6.

In 1957, drawing on aerodynamic principles established by Harvey Allen in the mid 1950's, Faget led the flight systems division that designed the Mercury spacecraft with a blunt-bodied capsule, allowing for it to slow down higher in the atmosphere, reducing the amount of friction and heat upon re-entry.

Faget also designed the Mercury capsule with an escape tower that would enable astronauts to separate from the rocket in the event of catastrophic booster failure. This tower design saved the lives of two Russian cosmonauts in 1983.

Evolving the Mercury capsule, Faget collaborated with fellow NASA engineer Caldwell Johnson to design the Apollo spacecraft for lunar landing. He preferred to launch a capsule that would land on the Moon, but understood the drawbacks of launching the entire unit. He converted the Apollo design into two parts, command and service modules that would orbit the Moon and a separate lunar-landing craft.

Even as NASA was developing the Apollo spacecraft, it was setting its sights on a reusable space shuttle. Faget envisioned the orbiter with a straight-wing design. In the end, NASA opted for a delta-shaped design that differed in several ways from Faget's patented plan, but Faget was satisfied with the final result, remarking "She really is a marvelous machine."

"Max Faget was truly a legend of the manned space flight program," said Christopher Kraft, former Johnson Space Center director. "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. He was a colleague and a friend I regarded with the highest esteem. History will remember him as one of the really great scientists of the 20th Century."

Faget left NASA in 1981 and in 1983 he founded Space Industries, Inc., to design an industrial space facility. Space Industries developed orbiting work platforms to be launched on a shuttle mission. The platforms were designed to produce pharmaceuticals, electrical crystals, and metals that could not be made within the Earth's gravitational environment.

Graduating from the Louisiana State University in 1943 with a Bachelor of Science, Faget was the recipient of honorary doctorates from the University of Louisiana and the University of Pittsburgh.

He also received the NASA Medal for Outstanding Leadership, the Outstanding Accomplishment Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), and the Gold Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

In May 2003, Faget was honored with induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio. A release announcing the honor included Faget's view on inventing.

"It's hard to tell people how you invent something. You see a problem - you solve a problem," said Faget.

"I enjoy solving problems," he said.

Faget was born in 1921 in British Honduras to noted tropical disease specialist, Dr. Guy Faget. He grew up reading Astounding Science Fiction novels and building model airplanes, which he used in competitions.

Faget is survived by four children, a daughter in law, two sons in law and 10 grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

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