Facebook Twitter Linked In Google+ Vimeo YouTube Flickr     My Account     icon_home_white_small.png  Public Home     Connected Community Lobby     Contact Us

A Personal Remembrance:
Growing Up In the Space Race

by Bill Anderton

I am a space geek. Yep, proudly wear the badge. My involvement as an enthusiast and fan of all thing space related has been both broad and deep. My geekiness started as a child and has stayed with me as an adult. As an adult, I became an information scientist (not a rocket scientist) but I did make unique personal and professional relationships with some of the prime players in the space race; relationships that I cherish.

A Child of the TV Generation

As a kid in the 1950s, I was deep into all of the early sci-fi shows offered by the four television channels serving Ft. Worth, Texas at the time. I watched everything that was offered in the genre, particularly in the children's programming block on Saturday mornings. Many of these were reruns, some I saw as originally broadcast:

  • Rocky Jones, Space Ranger
  • Commander Cody, Sky Marshal of the Universe
  • Johnny Jupiter
  • Science Fiction Theater
  • Men Into Space

I loved these shows and watched every episode I could. Of course, space travel was the common thread.

My entertainment consumption also included theatrical movies and the pre-war and post-war theatrical serials shown between the double features at the Gateway Theater in Handley, Texas. My brothers and I had to mow the grass on Saturdays as our weekly chore and then my mother would drop us off at the Gateway where most of the other kids in Handley gathered for the movies on Saturday afternoon. Some of the features were sci-fi, as well as some of the serials shown between the double feature. The sci-fi fare was always my favorite.

The 1950s saw the introduction of the great B-movie sci-fi genre (still my favorite) and later the grindhouse drive-in films.

I also read all of the books I could get my hands on from my school's library as well as the public library. Certainly sci-fi, but also science and aerospace textbooks and non-fiction books that I could comprehend at an early age.

Sci-fi on TV, in the movies and in books simply set the stage for my interest in space; they primed the pump.

Also, A Child of the Era

This was the "we-can-do-anything" decade of the 1950s when new jet aircraft and new rockets were in the news almost every week. Space and aerospace weren't just science fiction but also science fact.

The Dallas-Ft Worth area was one of the country's hubs of advancements of the time. The area hosted a major Strategic Air Command base, three significant aircraft factories, hundred of small defense firms and a burgeoning electronics and semiconductor industry. This created a science and engineering ecosystem of educated and trained people in the community.

Many of the pilots, air and ground crewmen, engineers and technicians were my friends' dads, my Sunday School teachers or just people you simply met while growing up. There were also family connections. My uncle was an aeronautical engineer at Convair (later General Dynamics.) My cousins were serving officers and airmen in the Air Force. Another cousin would soon start work for NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

My campouts during summer camp overlooked the flight line of Carswell AFB where SAC did continuous night flight operations of the latest exotic aircraft while we sat on our sleeping bags at our campsite on the next hill over and watched all of the advanced planes take off and land.

Most of the people in the service or working in industries would take the time to talk to kids about aerospace and technology, explain things to us, answer our questions and give tours of their workplaces and plants.

In other words, I lived in an environment that was rich in its stimulation for kids interested in science and space.

Even as a kid with an appetite for sci-fi, I knew what was fiction and what was fact. Science fiction was just entertainment, certainly fun, but what was happening around us in the world was fact and something very real. Like most of my friends, I was aware of real-world space progress even at this age.

On Saturday morning, October 5, 1957, I was visiting my grandmothers' s house and watching my Saturday morning shows in front of her TV when the NBC Television Network broke into Howdy Doody with a news update on the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik 1. Breaking into Howdy Doody with the news meant that a huge audience of kids were caught up in the story!

It was the first I heard of the launch of a satellite into orbit. I was well aware of USA's early space program and vaguely aware that the Soviets were doing something similar because we were studying the International Geophysical Year in school but I only knew about smaller sounding rockets. At the time, orbiting a satellite was all somewhat abstract to me (being only seven years old.) Still, the news of the launch changed that; it was electrifying. This was somehow different. Space was suddenly real, no longer abstract and no longer solely within the domain of fiction. 

At the time of Sputnik, I was had just entered second grade and was hooked on science-fact space from that moment. Science-fiction was fun and entertaining but science-fact was better. Not something just entertaining but something that humankind could accomplish. We really could put people into space.

The Soviets launched Sputnik 1 on Friday, October 4, 1957, at 19:28:34 GMT from the Baikonur Cosmodrome (5 October at the launch site) atop a Soviet R7 rocket. The Soviet missileers waited 90 minutes to circle the Earth to confirm Sputnik 1 was actually in orbit and then Soviet space legend Sergei Korolyov called Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to report.

The achievement was reported in a two-paragraph tersely-worded press release issued by the Soviet's official news agency, TASS, and printed on Saturday, October 5, 1957, in Pravda. By the time my Saturday morning kid shows were resumed after the news alert, the press in the U.S.A. was fully in gear working on deeper reporting that would continue for the next month or so.

By Sunday, October 6, 1957, CBS News had put together a special report.

In the U.S.A., scientists started scrambling to confirm the Soviet claims. Within hours of the launch, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Astronomy Department rigged an ad-hoc interferometer to measure signals from the satellite. Using this data, Donald B. Gillies and Jim Snyder programmed the ILLIAC-I computer to calculate the satellite's orbit from this data. The programming and calculation of Sputnik's ephemeris were completed in less than two days and later published in the journal Nature within a month of Sputnik's launch.

Elsewhere, other academics and agencies were scrambling too. JPL provides an interesting report on their activities.

Being interested in electronics, I was studying ham radio (I would get my Novice license in two more years) and had made friends with some ham radio operators in my neighborhood. Within a week, I was in the radio shacks of my ham friends listening to the "beep ... beep ... beep" of Sputnik in real time.

Much of the media coverage of Sputnik during the first several weeks was over the top. Reporters and spokespeople in the West were fanning existing Cold War fears of the Soviets "gaining the high ground." Authur C. Clake even said the U.S.A was now "a second-rate power." This seemed an over-reaction to me and my friends even as second-graders. It was obvious that the Soviet's surprise success would cause the USA to upgrade its already-in-progress space activities and I thought that was a good outcome. The Soviets might have been first in space, but the U.S.A. wasn't that far behind and we Americans love a challenge.

Even amongst the hyperbole in the news, there was also more thoughtful commentary about the needs of the country for the coming future, particularly for much more science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education; to make the engineers and scientists of the future in order to cope with the coming new world. This is what I remembered most about this period. Lots of people began talking about STEM education and I was all for it, already having a love of science and math.

Each failure and each triumph of the early U.S.A. rockets were closely followed by myself and my friends. I built models of the missiles and X-planes in the news. In August of 1960, my brother and I went out into our backyard to watch the Echo-1, the world's first communication satellite, move across the sky using satellite ephemerides my ham friends had found. Echo-1 was just a 100-foot Mylar balloon in orbit that broadcasters could use as a reflector for microwave transmissions to bounce their signals from coast to coast or overseas for the first time. Since the Mylar was silver and very reflective, it was easy to spot with the naked eye. For later satellites, I built antennas to try and snag whatever radio signals from various spacecraft I could snag with my shortwave radio sets. On the day of the launch of each Mercury and Gemini NASA flights, Eastern Hills Elementary School put the continuous radio network news coverage onto the school PA system so we could all listen in real time.

It was an exciting time!

I was a good STEM student but never wanted to be an astronaut. I was more interested in the science and the design of rockets and spacecraft, particularly in their electronics and computer systems.

In 1967, I represented Ft. Worth in a week-long space science and physics conference for gifted high-school physics student hosted by SMU and conducted by Dr. Robert Jastrow who was then founding Director of the Goddard Space Flight Center. Previously, he had been the first chairman of NASA’s Lunar Exploration Committee, which established the scientific goals for the exploration of the moon during the Apollo lunar landings. At the same time, he was also the Chief of the Theoretical Division at NASA in its early days of 1958 to 1961 before founding Goddard. Dr. Jastrow was the first tier-1 scientist that I spent significant time with. It was a highlight of my high school period.

Interest Continued Into My Professional Career

I was between my freshman and sophomore years at Baylor University when Apollo 11 occurred. I did a quick day trip to Baylor in Waco in the early afternoon of July 20, 1969, and listened to the moon landing on the radio news coverage while on the drive down and back. I returned to Ft. Worth in time for a moon-walk watch party with my youth group at Meadowbrook Baptist Church. We gathered and watched the entire EVA on several television sets that we had set up in the church's Fellowship Hall.

About thirty teenagers sat transfixed as we watched the national broadcast on CBS.

I faithfully watched most of the remaining Apollo missions and hung on every broadcast word and image of the Apollo 13 mission after its accident.

Clearly, because of my age and timing, I was going to miss the moon program at NASA and wouldn't be out of graduate school in time to participate in Apollo; the program was to end before I graduated. It was equally obvious even before Apollo ended, that the government didn't have much of an appetite for the further funding NASA as a national priority or even at adequate levels for much of a continuation of manned space exploration after Apollo. The manned space program was "winding down."

NASA and the government were facing significant criticism at the time for the cost of the program. There were political forces that would have preferred the money be used on domestic social programs instead. While a valid point of view, I always thought is was short sighted. In my opinion at the time and even today, in becoming a great spacefaring nation, the United States benefited greatly far beyond simply going to the moon and bring back some rocks. We built an entire technology infrastructure and ecosystem of highly educated and skilled people that took their expertises into many facets of our everyday life. Even more important, it excited children to pursue higher education and ignited their imaginations to accomplish great things.

Yes, we had many pressing social issues that required attention and funding. However, a great nation should be able to balance both! Address our current needs, certainly, but maintain great national goals for the future. People like to talk about NASA spin-off technologies as rewards for the investment in NASA but they usually fail to mention the generation of people, particularly children, that were motivated and inspired to increase the intellectual capital of the nation and given an example to do great things.

At the time, the only bright spot in the space program was the deep-space exploration work being done at JPL were I was very tempted to go. Instead, I got into the software development business in Dallas.

My professional career in software development resulted in several significant programs in computer graphics and TCP/IP communications. As a result, I did get to work with some of my hero organizations. Several of my software systems were used by NASA, the Air Force, the DOD and other agencies. I spent a lot of time in their facilities at Johnson, Ames, Goddard, JPL and Vandenberg AFB. I worked tangentially in several of their flight programs as a vendor and contractor.

Working With My Childhood Heros

My work in the field led me to become a Principal Consultant for Harvard Consulting. In 1990, I was put on an assignment for Space Industries International (SII) in Houston, Texas near NASA's Johnson Space Center, to do turn-around work for their Space Industries Telecommunications and Electronics Company (SITEC) division which was the commercial division of the company. SII also had a much larger Space Division that was headed by Joe Allen, the former astronaut and NASA Assistant Administrator for Legislative Affairs. SII was founded by Dr. Maxime Faget, the former head of Engineering and Development at NASA's Johnson Space Center who also served as SII's Chairman of the Board and its design lead.

Before my first day on the assignment, I was not aware of Max or his role in NASA's history or spaceflight in general. While I had been a NASA vendor and provided on-site support for several of my software systems at various NASA centers for the eight previous years, I never learned about Max or his role in this period; he worked at a much higher level in the organization than any of my previous NASA clients.

Max had a very important role in manned space flight but was an unsung player, known mostly only to insiders.

After serving for three years as a submarine officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Max joined the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia in 1946 as a research scientist for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to NASA. While working for NACA at Langley, Max worked on the design of the X-15 hypersonic spacecraft, at the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation's Skunk Works.

Yes, Max worked on the design of an airplane that I had built as a model when I was nine years old and also the same plane that Neil Armstrong had flown!

In 1958, Max was selected as one of the 35 engineers making up the Space Task Group for creating the Mercury spacecraft.

This led to a 1959 patent (and others to follow) on the capsule design that listed Max along with five others at the inventors. I proudly own one of the cover sheets of the patent that Max autographed for me.

In 1962, he was named Director of Engineering and Development at the newly created Johnson Space Center in Houston, a post he held for the next 20 years. He not only had to build the engineering facilities at JSC but plan and execute a roadmap for flying men to the moon and returning them safely to Earth; JSC's specific mission to meet JFK's challenge. No small task but one he made significant contributions to successfully accomplishing.


Above: Chris Craft lights Max Faget's cigar -- Mr. President, Mission Accomplished! A group of NASA and Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) officials join in with the flight controllers in the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR) in the Mission Control Center (MCC), Building 30, in celebrating the successful conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. From left foreground Dr. Maxime A. Faget, MSC Director of Engineering and Development; George S. Trimble, MSC Deputy Director; Dr. Christopher C. Kraft Jr., MSC Director for Flight Operations; Julian Scheer (in back), Assistant Administrator, Office of Public Affairs, NASA HQ.; George M. Low, Manager, Apollo Spacecraft Program, MSC; Dr. Robert R. Gilruth, MSC Director; and Charles W. Mathews, Deputy Associate Administrator, Office of Manned Space Flight, NASA HQ, Houston, Texas.

His approach to the problem was a series of progressive steps that began with the Mercury program but grew the technology into the Gemini and ultimately Apollo programs. In the early period, he also found time to design the shape of the nuclear-warhead re-entry vehicle for the Polaris missile for the Navy and designed the Scout and Little Joe solid-fueled research rockets to test some of the boilerplates for Mercury.

His final design and development project for NASA was heading the design team for the Space Shuttle.

In short, throughout his long career with NASA, Max led the design of every manned spacecraft that the U.S.A. has ever flown. Max's legacy continues even today as NASA works on the Orion manned spacecraft which re-uses many of his Mercury-era and Apollo-era design concepts.

In NASA, there was no such title as "Chief Designer" of NASA spacecraft. However, if anyone could rightly claim the title, it would have been Max. Even still, Max had an informal (but very real) veto on NASA’s spacecraft designs from about 1958 through the mid-1970s. His power was magnified by the manned space program being a national priority. Also, he was not afraid to use his considerable power. Most famously, in the design competition among the major aerospace contractors for the Apollo spacecraft, he had a major role in selecting what was only the second-best scored proposal. The proposal selected was successful because its design more closely resembled what Max and his in-house team at JSC had designed prior to the external proposal process.

The aerospace general contractors coined a commonly-heard phrase, “What Max Faget wants, Max Faget gets.”

Although sometimes referred to as the "chief designer" of manned spacecraft, Max always scoffed at the term/title. Max is quoted as saying, "This is not that kind of country. Nobody is appointed by the king to be the royal spaceship designer."

This was classic Faget. He had to fight for his ideas and get his colleagues and administrators to also buy into his ideas. He was very good at it but his ideas were very good too.

Max was diminutive in physical stature, without an inspiring appearance or imposing voice. He favored wearing bow ties. He preferred to stay in the background. However, he was a real force within the NASA community and commanded lots of respect among his NASA administrators, NASA staff and the contractor community.

Max and Joe Allen were the selection committee for hiring Harvard for this assignment, and ultimately me, as their consultants. Max and I hit if off right way at our first lunch together. Back at the office, he gave me the tour of the SII building and we stopped in front of a large scale model of his Industrial Space Facility (ISF) space station and he started explaining some of the concepts of the design. I spontaneously noticed a significant engineering aspect of the ISF design that potentially saved lots of complexity, money and weight. When I mentioned it, Max's face lit up. He said few people intuitively noticed the aspect I brought up. He loved engineering elegance and appreciated it when other people noticed.

On my first day at SII, Max was kind enough to loan me the use of his personal office as a place for me to work for a few hours while they were getting me moved in and set up. On the wall across from his desk chair, I noticed a plaque with the John Paul Jones quote, "I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm's way."

Max was a gifted and meticulous engineer but he also had an intuitive sense about how hardware on complex vehicles interacted in flight, either in space, hypersonic velocities or in the reentry interface; what he called a "first-order feel." He also had exceptional engineering judgment. Taken together, he was indeed a master builder of spacecraft.

Without question, Max Faget was the USA's direct counterpart to the Soviet's fabled spacecraft designer Sergei Korolyov. Whereas Koorolyov identity was a Soviet state secret, Max's identity wasn't secret at all, just low key outside of the NASA and its contractors. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he never sought the limelight or did many public interviews.

For background information about Max, see:

As a sidebar, some of Max's work is tangentially related to the video used in the documentary featured in this film festival. The video on Apollo 11 was a good as it could be within the extremely tight deadlines set by the JFK challenge of going to the moon and returning before the end of the decade. Not everything in the pipeline could be ready for that first moon landing. In addition to the slow-scan video used on Apollo 11 (see the detailed story in the sidebar on the right of the page), Max was also working on improving the video sent from the Moon for later flights. One of the many Apollo projects that Max directed was the Lunar Communications Relay Unit and the Ground Command Television Assembly used for the first time on the Apollo 15. This equipment greatly improved the available bandwidth and communications between the Earth and the Moon. It allowed people to watch the lunar excursions in real-time on their televisions in color, at much higher quality than seen on Apollo 11 and was even remotely controlled from mission control. For this work, NASA received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Technical/Engineering Development. At the awards ceremony, Max accepted the award on behalf of NASA on June 29, 1970.

When Max retired from NASA in 1981, he went a mile or so southwest down NASA Road One and opened a privately-funded commercial space company called Space Industries International (SII) in 1982. Its mission was to design and build what could have been the U.S.A.'s first space station, the "Industrial Space Facility" (ISF) and other spacecraft, equipment and payloads for manned space flight.

The ISF could have flown about 15 years before the first flight to build the International Space Station. It was SII's foundational project but, over time, SII also designed and built other spacecraft and equipment for space flight.

While politics decided that the ISF would never fly, other payloads did fly.

After I started consulting with SII, they didn't have a regular office ready for me so I made do while things were moved around and SITEC was moved into the main SII building. In the temporary office assigned to me was the cardboard and plywood full-scale mock-up of the Wake Shield Facility, a free-flying satellite to be carried on the Shuttle as a materials-manufacturing experiment. It was camped in my first office and we share the space for a couple of months. When I moved into my permanent office, I came to find that I missed the mockup as my officemate. It made a great conversation-starter for visitors.

The Wake Shield Facility (WSF) was used to make a “shadow” of ultra-high vacuum behind it as it flew through space. It was based on simple but very elegant physics. Within the resulting envelope of ultra-high vacuum, ultra-pure crystals and other advanced materials could be manufactured robotically. The WSF flew as experiments on three Space Shuttle missions from 1994-96.

After consulting with SII for several months as an outside contractor, and with Harvard's blessing, Max and his partners recruited me away to go on staff as the Chief Technical Officer of the SITEC Divison for SSI's commercial products and services.

My division didn't directly have anything to do with space flight. Instead, we designed commercial communications controllers, software applications and distance learning systems (my first experience with large-scale distance learning system can from this work.) However, the job did put me in the building, on the senior staff, and working around a staff of over one hundred PhDs spacecraft designers engineers and builders. Some of which were pioneers in NASA.

For a lifelong civilian space geek who never was a member of the space program, this was an ideal job to feed my geekiness. I rubbed elbows with many of the heroes of my youth, some of the pioneers of space flight. Some I worked with directly, others I met socially when out for dinners or drinks with colleagues. Or, for some, it was just because I was hanging around in SII's offices.

Getting to know Max and working with him and his staff was a treat. But it was much more, I also got to meet lots of Max's colleagues from his long and distinguished career.

Max set up regularly-scheduled "Brown-Bag Lunch Fridays" in the Board Room for SII employees. During these events, the luminaries of NASA (top administrators, astronauts, flight directors, awesome engineers and scientists) would drop in just to have lunch with us and chat. No formal presentations were given, just talk and Q&A. These were small, up-close and personal gatherings.

In addition to many others, during my tenure with SII, I met and talked with both Neil Armstrong (once) and Buzz Aldrin (on three occasions.)

I knew the history of NASA from my readings at the time; NASA has always published copious materials and I'm a bit of an amateur historian. However, meeting and talking with many of the people who did these acts or built these machines, humanized history for me; it was no longer something aloof and academic but some human, very real with depth and nuance.

Also, the personal discussions and details they provided filled in a lot of the gaps in the published histories of the time. The Apollo story is so big, many writers end up focusing on the same things over and over again and miss much of the nuances or the obscure part of the story that can be so important to understanding.

By this time in the 1990s, enough time had passed for the people I talked with to have gained historical perspective on the events. This also included my own additional perspective. The discussions with my heroes were fascinating. Getting to know my heroes up close and personally only increased the esteem in which I held these folks.

While I have always deeply respected the astronauts and understand the reasons for the attention they receive, I've also always deeply cared for the engineers, technicians, mission controllers, contractors and all of the other non-flight personnel that made Apollo such a historic success. Also, being a design/builder myself (just not for spacecraft), I hold a special place in my heart for all of the designers and scientists that were, in my opinion, the heart of the program. Not as much is written about these people as are the astronauts, but that is one of the things that made my interactions at SII so valuable to me.

It was one of the most enjoyable periods of my career.

Max passed away on October 10, 2004 after fighting bladder cancer. NASA's official remembrance of Max follows:

The man who designed the original spacecraft for Project Mercury and is credited with contributing to the designs of every U.S. human spacecraft from Mercury to the Space Shuttle has died.

Dr. Maxime A. Faget, who in 1958 became part of the Space Task Group that would later evolve into the NASA Johnson Space Center, died Oct. 9 at his home in Houston. He was 83 years old.

“Without Max Faget’s innovative designs and thoughtful approach to problem solving, America’s space program would have had trouble getting off the ground,” said NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe. “He also was an aeronautics pioneer. In fact, it was his work on supersonic flight research that eventually led to his interest in spaceflight. The thoughts and prayers of the entire Agency are with his family.”

Faget’s career with NASA dates back to 1946, when he joined the staff of Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., as a research scientist. He worked in the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division and later was named head of the Performance Aerodynamics Branch. He conceived and proposed the development of the one-person spacecraft used in Project Mercury.

Faget was selected as one of the original 35 engineers who served as the nucleus of the Space Task Group to carry out the Mercury project. The group also devoted a lot of time to follow-on programs, and Faget led the initial design and analysis teams that studied the feasibility of a flight to the Moon. As a result of his work and other NASA research, President John F. Kennedy was able to commit the U.S. to a lunar landing by the end of the 1960s.

“Max was a genuine icon,” said NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Operations William Readdy, “a down-to-earth Cajun with a very nuts-and-bolts approach to engineering. He contributed immeasurably to America’s successes in human spaceflight. His genius allowed us to compete and win the space race to the Moon.”

“Max Faget was truly a legend of the manned spaceflight program,” said Christopher C. Kraft, former Johnson Space Center director. “He was a true icon of the space program. There is no one in spaceflight 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 took part in the original feasibility study for the Space Shuttle. His team then focused on Shuttle development. He retired from NASA in 1981 following the second Shuttle mission (STS-2). His government service career spanned four decades.