Max Faget and the Race to the Moon

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Max Faget and the Race to the Moon

This month the National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 mission with an exhibit highlighting our Inductees who have helped make spaceflight possible. Read below to learn more about Max Faget, the man who invented the first human space capsule.

The Start of the Space Race

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the world by launching Sputnik 1 — the first artificial satellite — into space. For the United States, the Soviet Union’s achievement represented a very real national security threat and made the western power realize just how far behind it was technologically. In response, President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved unprecedented government investments in the research and development of space and rocket propulsion technology. From this urgency, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) was born.

While NASA’s goals were scientific in nature, the agency’s main priority at the time was to help America overtake the Soviet Union in its space technology and capabilities. After successfully launching its own artificial satellite, Explorer 1, the agency set its sights on achieving human spaceflight and code-named the mission Project Mercury.

Central to the success of this mission were the engineering achievements of NIHF Inductee Max Faget, who conceived of and designed the first space capsule.

The Pioneering Work of Max Faget

After receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from Louisiana State University in 1943, Faget served for three years as a submarine naval officer during World War II. When he returned home, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (later absorbed by NASA in 1958) and began working on solutions to address the intense heat created when traveling at extreme speeds.

NASA called on Faget to help design a space capsule that would enable the safe reentry of a human-piloted space mission. In comparison to previous and more complicated winged reentry modules, Faget was steadfast in his trust of a simple wingless blunt-body manned capsule. This design allowed the spacecraft to decelerate while in the upper part of the atmosphere, resulting in reduced friction and G-forces.

“But believe me, this wasn’t an acceptable solution to most of my colleagues,” Faget recalled in an interview with Air & Space Magazine. “It was anathema. It was a break with the faith.… But it was the right way to do it.”

NASA was eventually convinced by Faget’s direction and used his capsule design in all six of Project Mercury’s successful manned flights from 1961 to 1963.

One Giant Leap for Mankind

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy proposed that the United States commit to “achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”   

Because of his success with the Mercury Project and the following Gemini Program, NASA promoted Faget to chief engineer at the Johnson Space Center. It was here that he designed the Apollo command and service module (CSM or Columbia), a vehicle used to both transport the Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon, and then return them safely back to Earth.

Apollo 11 launched from Cape Kennedy on July 16, 1969. The event was televised, and an estimated 530 million people from around the world watched as Cmdr. Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the surface of the moon.

While Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin spent 21 hours and 36 minutes exploring the surface of the moon by photographing the terrain and gathering samples, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins maintained a continuous orbit around the moon in Columbia.

The Lunar Module (Eagle) performed the first launch from a celestial body other than Earth to rejoin Columbia, and the Apollo 11 mission was successfully completed when Columbia landed safely in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969.

Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing with NIHF!

July 20 marks the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, and the NIHF Museum is celebrating this world-changing event with a new panel exhibit that highlights the story of Apollo 11 and features Faget and other NIHF Inductees who have revolutionized spaceflight. Here visitors can observe tools used by astronauts in the Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions, as a well as a model of Hubble.

To learn more about Faget’s contributions to science, we invite you to visit the NIHF Museum online!

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