STG Plunges Ahead

[32] The report of the Low Committee early in February 1961 produced no immediate action. As outgoing Administrator Glennan had warned his colleagues in the January meeting of the Space Exploration Program Council, lunar landing was not something NASA could undertake on its own hook; so large and costly a program needed backing at the highest levels.21 In the uncertain political climate of early 1961, planning for a lunar landing remained temporarily in abeyance, though work on the Apollo spacecraft went ahead in STG. But renewed interest in rendezvous and orbital operations in NASA Headquarters, as shown in the Low report, led to a second inter-center meeting on rendezvous at the end of February. This time the site was Washington, instead of one of the field centers. The agenda reflected the changing nature of rendezvous research within NASA. Though Langley still dominated the discussions on rendezvous studies, Marshall took a full session to describe aspects of the rendezvous and orbital operations program it had under contract. This meeting saw the lunar orbit rendezvous idea introduced to NASA as a whole.22 Until then, it had been limited to Langley circles and NASA Headquarters.

Rendezvous and orbital operations also figured prominently in congressional hearings on NASA's proposed budget for fiscal year 1962 during the first months of 1961.23 The House Committee on Science and Astronautics, in particular, displayed a marked interest in the prospect of orbital rendezvous and scheduled a special hearing on the subject for May.24 NASA's budget included some $2 million for further rendezvous studies. This was much less than NASA had wanted, but the Bureau of the Budget had sliced $6 million from the agency's initial request. The House committee recommended the full $8 million and NASA did eventually get the money.25 In sharp contrast to the marked concern for space station logistics in 1959 hearings, the testimony in 1961 consistently stressed the role of rendezvous in mounting lunar and planetary expeditions and the broad value of rendezvous applications.26

While NASA spokesmen were telling Congress how important rendezvous was going to be, a working group in NASA Headquarters was drawing up guidelines for a full-fledged orbital operations development program. The resulting staff paper, ready in May, presented the case for the immediate "establishment of an integrated research, development and applied orbital operations program." Stressing the need for orbital operations in future space programs, the report urged NASA to set up "an aggressive program," coordinated with other NASA programs and with the Department of Defense, but separate from either. Such a program, the report concluded, would buy for the United States at a cost of roughly $1 billion three important skills: [33] the ability to intercept and inspect orbiting satellites, to support a space station, and to launch from orbit.

Bernard Maggin, who had arranged the first NASA rendezvous meeting a year earlier, headed the working group.* He sent copies of the report to the program office directors in NASA Headquarters and to the director of Program Planning and Evaluation. His request for comments, however, went unanswered.27 By early May, NASA knew that President Kennedy was ready to approve a lunar landing program. The decision for a speeded up and expanded program transformed the context of NASA planning and made the kind of program Maggin suggested seem far too modest.

In the meantime, James Chamberlin followed his own course. He had arrived in St. Louis in February convinced that his job was to redesign the Mercury capsule from the bottom up. This was a belief not widely shared. The common view had it that Mercury only needed to be improved. Chamberlin felt, and as engineering director of Project Mercury he was surpassingly well qualified to judge, that the Mercury design precluded simple upgrading.28 The Mercury capsule was merely a first try at a manned spacecraft. It clearly took too long to build, test, check out, and launch. The heart of the trouble was Mercury's integrated design, which packed the most equipment into the least space with the smallest weight. This could hardly have been avoided, given the limited weight-lifting capacity of the boosters available for the Mercury program. But integration also meant that reaching parts to test, repair, or replace was harder than it should be.

Chamberlin first met with McDonnell engineers to discuss the improved Mercury on 13 February. Little more than a month later, he had the chance to present some of his ideas to the head of Space Flight Programs, Abe Silverstein. On 17 March, Gilruth and his top-ranking staff journeyed to Wallops Island, Virginia, for a weekend retreat, where they were joined by Silverstein.29 Mercury problems took up some time, but the meeting's main purpose was to discuss advanced programs. This chiefly meant Apollo. Chamberlin did, however, have a chance to describe his approach to redesigning the Mercury capsule.

He had attended the meeting mainly to discuss Mercury's progress. But after Silverstein outlined a series of desirable future Mercury missions, ranging from the one- and three-orbit manned missions already planned to rendezvous development, Chamberlin launched into a largely impromptu blackboard lecture on the program's future, which he saw as very limited. The trouble with trying anything more [34] ambitious with Mercury than had been planned was that even these relatively modest goals could only be achieved at the expense of the most painstaking and arduous care in testing and checkout. This was not a manned spacecraft problem so much as it was a Mercury design problem. Drawing on his experience with fire control and weapons delivery systems for fighter aircraft, Chamberlin sketched a new capsule structure with its equipment located outside the cockpit in self-contained modules easy to install and check out. Although Chamberlin focused his remarks on capsule modification, he had obviously given some thought to a suitable mission for the new design. He had, in fact, prepared a brochure dealing with an audacious circumlunar flight for the improved Mercury, which Silverstein looked at and dismissed without comment.30

Both Silverstein and Gilruth, however, saw the need for changes along the lines Chamberlin had suggested. Gilruth asked Chamberlin to pursue the ideas in more detail with McDonnell, as the basis for specific proposals. Silverstein authorized STG to prepare a work statement to cover a McDonnell study of modifying the Mercury capsule for enhanced equipment accessibility. STG was also to place an order with McDonnell for parts to be used in several capsules beyond the 20 already contracted for. Looking back, Chamberlin was sure that was where it started: "As far as I was concerned, the meeting at Wallops was the initiation of Gemini."31

On 14 April STG and McDonnell signed an amendment to the original contract for the Mercury capsule. This amendment authorized McDonnell to procure so-called long-lead-time items - those parts that took longest to get - for six extra Mercury capsules. The parts and material so obtained would be used in what was now termed the Mercury Mark II spacecraft, once the design had been agreed upon by NASA and McDonnell. Specifically excluded from this procurement effort were capsule structure, ablation heatshield, and escape-tower systems, but all other capsule systems were covered up to a cost of $2.5 million.32

The design of the Mark II spacecraft was the subject of a second contract. After talks with STG, McDonnell submitted a study proposal on 12 April.33 McDonnell proposed to spend $126,385 for 9,000 hours of engineering study, with two objectives: first, to reduce the time needed to build and check out a Mark II capsule by improving the location of equipment and the way it was installed; second, by means of these changes to make the new capsule easy to modify to meet new program objectives. Capsule shape and heat protection were not to be altered, nor were capsule systems to be replaced or greatly modified. The focus of change was to be rearrangement; moving equipment from inside to outside the cabin and putting it in modular subassemblies, with special concern for escape, retrograde, and recovery systems.34 McDonnell was authorized on 14 April to proceed with the engineering study, and a contract for $98,621 was signed on 24 April.35

By then, the study was already well under way. Chamberlin began calling on others in STG to help him. The first was James T. Rose, a recent transfer to Engineering from Flight Systems Division.36 McDonnell created a small project group for the study, headed by William J. Blatz, with Winston D. Nold as chief assistant project engineer. Although they brought with them several engineers from McDonnell's advanced design section, the new group drew most heavily on Project Mercury, particularly a team led by Fred J. Sanders, for its staff.37 Chamberlin regarded Mercury experience as indispensable. "That was the point," he recalled, "to use and build on experience, to gain and not to start over again . . . without the benefit of the detailed hardware experience."38

The guiding idea shared by Chamberlin and his McDonnell colleagues was "to make a better mechanical design"; capsule parts would be more accessible, leading to "a more reliable, more workable, more practical capsule."39 The experimental Mercury capsule was to be transformed into an operational spacecraft. At this point, neither Chamberlin nor the McDonnell group were much concerned with the purpose such a redesigned capsule might serve. The subject arose, of course, as Chamberlin's lunar scheme shows, but it took a back seat. For the moment, the urgent question was strictly one of improving the engineering design. Working out the objectives for a program based on the improved capsule could wait.


* Its members were Joseph E. McGolrick and Eldon Hall (Office of Launch Vehicle Programs), John Disher and John L. Sloop (Office of Space Flight Programs), and Alfred M. Nelson ad Berg Paraghamian (Office of Program Planning and Evaluation).


21 SEPC minutes, p. 3.

22 Agenda, NASA Inter-Center Rendezvous Discussions General Meeting-2 7-28 February 1961; Lindsay J. Lina and Arthur W. Vogeley, "Preliminary Study of a Piloted Rendezvous Operation from the Lunar Surface to an Orbiting Space Vehicle," 21 Feb.1961, presented at the NASA Inter-Center Rendezvous Discussions, 27-28 Feb. 1961.

23 U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, NASA Scientific and Technical Programs: Hearings, 87th Cong., 1st sess., 1961, pp. 171-72, 439-42; 1962 NASA Authorization, pp. 805-806.

24 U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Science and Astronautics, Orbital Rendezvous in Space: Hearings, 87th Cong., 1st sess., 23 May 1961.

25 U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, NASA Authorization for Fiscal Year 1962: Hearings on H.R. 6874, 87th Cong., 1st sess., 1961, pp. 90, 139, 171; U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Science and Astronautics, Space Orbital Rendezvous, H.R. 909, 87th Cong., 1st sess., 15 Aug. 1961, p. 9.

26 Space Orbital Rendezvous, passim.

27 "Guidelines for a Program for Manned and Unmanned Orbital Operations," NASA Staff Paper, May 1961; memo, Bernard Maggin to Assoc. Adm., "Staff Paper - Guidelines for a Program for Manned and Unmanned Orbital Operations," 23 May 1961, enclosed in staff paper.

28 Chamberlin interview.

29 Memo, Purser to Gilruth, "Management Meeting, March 17-20, 1961," 14 March 1961.

30 John H. Disher, telephone interview, 16 Jan. 1969; Disher, "Notes Taken . . . at March 21, 1961 Meeting at Wallops Island," pp. 5-7; letter, Chamberlin to Grimwood, 26 March 1974, with comments.

31 "Action Items, Management Discussions, March 17-20, 1961," n.d.; Disher notes, pp. 6, 7; Chamberlin comments, 26 March 1974.

32 Letter Contract No. 6, Glenn F. Bailey to McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, 14 April 1961; Bailey and Stephen D. Armstrong, interview, Houston, 13 Dec. 1966.

33 Letter, John Y. Brown to Bailey, "Proposed Contract, Mercury Capsule, Firm Price and Delivery Proposal for MK II Mercury Engineering Study Program," MAC No. NASA-16-9186, 12 April 1961.

34 "Price and Delivery Proposal for MK II Mercury Engineering Study Program," MAC No. 8185, 12 April 1961.

35 Letter, Bailey to Brown, "Contract NAS 9-119 - Engineering Study," PASO-B-1926, 14 April 1961; "Design Engineering Study for Mercury MK-II Spacecraft," Contract NAS 9-119, 24 April 1961.

36 James T. Rose, interview, St. Louis, 13 April 1966.

37 William J. Blatz, Winston D. Nold, and Fred J. Sanders, interviews, St. Louis, 14 April 1966; Chamberlin interview.

38 Chamberlin interview.

39 Ibid.; cf. Blatz and Sanders interviews.


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