Here's To You, Max. Well Done.

One of the things our customers get from us is the truth. At times, this puts us in a delicate position of having to disagree with something they might feel strongly about, or cause us to recommend something they haven’t thought of. I think it’s one of our greatest strengths: we never sit down at the table to play the role of the “Yes Man”. I was reminded of this when I heard this story about one of America’s great space heroes, Max Faget.

Paraphrasing commentator Andrew Chaiken, on NPR:

Every great achievement in space begins in the mind of an engineer on Earth. Last week, SpaceShipOne captured the $10 million X Prize because of some brilliant out-of-the-box thinking by its designer, Burt Rutan. More than 40 years ago, NASA’s brilliant out-of-the-box thinker was a small, wiry engineer named Max Faget. He was never a household name, even at the height of the space race. But his genius was crucial to NASA’s space triumphs.

In 1958, aerospace engineers were struggling with the biggest problem of space flight: protecting the craft and the astronauts from intense heat of re-entry. It would have to withstand temperatures hotter than the surface of the Sun, if anyone could figure out how to build such a craft. Most scientists favored a sleek needlenose design to minimize air resistance. But Faget had a different idea. He had heard researcher Harvey Allen talk about a ship with a blunt shape, allowing it to slam into the atmosphere, creating a shock wave that would deflect most of the heat away from the spacecraft. Allen’s idea went completely against conventional wisdom, but Faget knew it was right.

When the experts gathered for a conference in March, 1958 to discuss needlenose designs, they got an earful from Max Faget.

“You’re all wrong,” Faget said. “If you’re serious about putting a man in space anytime soon, a blunt body is the only way to go.” His outspokenness helped convince the skeptics and he designed the spacecraft for project Mercury with a blunt heatsheild. It was anything but sleek. But Faget’s Mercury capsule successfully carried the first American astronauts into space, inlcuding Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and Gordon Cooper. Faget went on to design the Apollo command module that carried astronauts from the Earth to the Moon and back. He even led the early design of the reusable space shuttle. But Mercury was always his proudest accomplishment.

Max Faget, Designer of the Mercury capsule and Apollo command module and clearly nobody’s “Yes Man”, died on Saturday at the age of 83. Here’s to you, Max.

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