APOLLO 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong rightfully is remembered for taking man's first steps on the moon 50 years ago. Less well known is Louisiana State University mechanical engineering alumnus Maxime "Max" Faget, who designed the spacecraft responsible for that "giant leap for mankind."
Born in Stann Creek, British Honduras (now Belize) in 1921, Faget was the son of American physician Guy Henry Faget and the great-grandson of New Orleans doctor Jean Charles Faget Guy Henry was famous for discovering the first effective treatment for leprosy using promin and also served as director of the U.S. Marine Hospital in Carville, La. Jean Charles is renowned for discovering the unique symptom of yellow fever, known as the Faget sign, which allowed early detection and quarantine. Max, however, took a different path in life.
His quest for discovery began at a young age when he built model airplanes with his brother and read science fiction magazines. After graduating from high school in San Francisco, Calif., Faget enrolled in mechanical engineering at LSU, where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1943. Rather than find a job in his field right away, he enlisted in the Navy and served as an officer aboard the submarine USS Guavina in the South Pacific during World War II.
"You had to volunteer to be on a submarine," Faget's only son, Guy, explains. "They couldn't just assign you to it. Dad chose a submarine because it behaves like a plane, except it's in water. The dynamics are similar."
Once the USS Guavina was decommissioned in 1946, Faget contacted a college friend who worked at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Langley (Va.) Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. It was here that he became a research scientist first assigned to Langley's Applied Materials and Physics Division working on rocket propulsion. He then transferred to the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division, where he helped create the North American X-15, a hypersonic spacecraft designed to reach the edge of outer space and return with valuable information that could be used to design aircraft and spacecraft.
In 1958, NACA became NASA, and the Space Task Group was created. Faget was part of this team of 35 engineers who were responsible for NASA's manned spaceflight programs, including Project Mercury, the first U.S. human spaceflight program that ran from 1958-63. The goal of this project was to put a man into Earth's orbit and return him safely, ideally beating the...