The Paraglider Controversy

The one real exception to Gemini's smooth progress through its first half year was paraglider. Its development was a step ahead of the rest of Gemini, North American having been authorized to begin work on 20 November 1961, and the headstart may have accounted for the earlier signs of trouble.

Paraglider was controversial. Although GPO, and Chamberlin in particular, stoutly defended the concept, others in MSC had strong doubts. The Engineering and Development Directorate under Max Faget had been notably cool to the idea from the outset. The key question had been, and still was, "whether the deployment reliability of a single paraglider will equal that of a main and back-up chute system."53 The long-time efforts of Langley's Francis Rogallo, inventor of the paraglider, to sell his concept had been repeatedly countered by the argument that parachutes had proved they could be relied upon to recover spacecraft. Instead of wasting time on an untried concept, Faget's group favored efforts to improve parachute technology to permit land landing. They advocated using a new form of parachute that could be steered, with landing rockets to cushion the final impact as the spacecraft touched down.54

Another source of opposition to paraglider was the Flight Operations Division under Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. Questions of reliability here took second place to concern for the operational problems posed [92] by paraglider in the Gemini program. For Kraft's division, using paraglider and using ejection seats were two sides of the same coin: one required the other, neither was reliable, and both promised immense practical obstacles to the safe return of the astronauts.55 Kraft himself urged on Chamberlin, and later on MSC Director Gilruth, his objections to both systems.56

Paraglider critics found plenty of ammunition in North American's slow progress toward a working system. At first, paraglider development aim at landing system for manned spacecraft in general. Early in 1962, however, GPO decided that the program ought to be oriented explicitly to Gemini. North American faced a large new effort and a major delay, and not just because the Gemini spacecraft was much larger than the generalized model first planned for. The half-scale free-flight test vehicle would have to be redesigned to carry a flight control system, just as the full-scale model did. North American had to join with McDonnell to design a compatible landing gear system and check it out in a test program. And, finally, North American now had to develop and qualify emergency parachute systems for both half-scale and full-size test vehicles.57

This last demand, in particular, delayed North American, and it was mid-March before a subcontract for the emergency parachute system could be placed.58 Norbert F. Witte, North American's project manager for paraglider, planned to begin free-flight tests of the half-scale model toward the end of May. With its wing inflated and deployed before it left the ground, the test vehicle needed no emergency parachute. It would be towed into the air by a helicopter and released to fly under radio control. This series of tests would allow North American engineers to see how well the paraglider flew, how precise flight control could be, and whether the vehicle could flare - raise its nose to increase wing lift and drag and slow its rate of descent - just before landing.59

These were all questions that needed answers, but the most crucial was still whether or not the wing would deploy in flight. That had to wait for the emergency parachutes, since the test vehicles were too costly to risk without a backup system. Witte expected to have the half-scale emergency system tested by the start of June, when deployment tests could begin. The full-size emergency parachute would take longer but ought to be ready by mid-July. There still seemed to be a reasonable chance to complete this phase of the development program by September 1962.60

Timing was critical for paraglider development, since its place in the Gemini program depended upon its meeting the very tight launch schedule. Despite snags in the current phase of the program, Chamberlin decided that North American needed to get started on the next phase, [93] a 14-month effort to design, build, and test an advanced two-man paraglider trainer, to start a flight simulation program, and to design and develop a fully man-rated prototype Gemini paraglider landing system.61 That was in March 1962; by May the task was scaled down to require only the design of the prototype system, rather than its complete development. This was expected to reduce the time to five months from the date of the contract award.62

The project office still expected the paraglider to be ready on time, but warned in a 4 May schedule analysis that the program "will require close monitoring to prevent slippage." Paraglider was scheduled to be installed in the second Gemini spacecraft, which would be the first to carry a crew. The first spacecraft, since it was unmanned, was slated to come down by parachute. A prudent response to delays already incurred dictated that plans be laid for using a parachute system in the second spacecraft as well. By mid-June, GPO conceded that the paraglider would not be ready until the third flight.63


53 Chamberlin, interview, Houston, 9 June 1966; "Project Gemini Schedule Analysis," GPO, 4 May 1962; memo, Gerard J. Pesman to Engineering Div., "Paraglider Landing System Design Studies: review and evaluation of final report," 27 Sept. 1961.

54 "Preliminary Project Development Plan for a Controllable Parachute-Retrorocket Landing System," STG, 21 June 1961; memo, Caldwell C. Johnson to Jack C. Heberlig, 28 Aug. 1961.

55 Memo, William O. Armstrong to Chief, Flight Operations Div. (FOD), "Review of the development effort of the parawing landing system for the Gemini mission," 9 Feb. 1962; memo, Wayne E. Koons to Chief, FOD, "Operational problems associated with the use of ejection seats for Project Gemini," 23 Feb. 1962; memo, James M. Rutland to Chief, FOD, "Recovery system for Gemini," 21 March 1962.

56 Memo, Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., to Mgr., GPO, "Recovery operational study and retrieval evaluation tests," 1 March 1962; memos, Kraft to Dir., "Paraglider and ejection seats for Project Gemini," 26 April and 4 May 1962, with enclosures, "The Operational Implications of Paragliders and Ejection Seats in Project Gemini," n.d.

57 Memo, Lester A. Stewart to Procurement Officer, "Letter Contract NAS 9-167, Paraglider Development Program, Phase II-A," 22 Jan.1962, with enclosure, "Suggested Revisions to Statement of Work for Letter Contract NAS 9-167"; Crane to North American, Change Notice No. 1, Contract NAS 9- 167, 8 March 1962.

58 Letter, D. K. Bailey to MSC, Attn: G. F. Bailey and Purser, 62MA2243, 1 March 1962, with enclosure, "Monthly Progress Letter No. 3, Paraglider Development Program Phase IIA, 20 January 1962 to 20 February 1962," p. 1; TWX, G. F. Bailey to NAA, 9 March 1962; memo, Ronald C. Bake to A. E. Hyatt, "Change Notice No. 1 to NAS 9-167," 13 March 1962; letter, Norbert F. Witte to MSC, Attn: G. F. Bailey and Purser, 62MA3530, 29 March 1962, with enclosure, "Monthly Progress Letter No. 4, Paraglider Development Program Phase IIA, 20 February 1962 to 20 March 1962,"p. 1.

59 "Monthly Progress Letter No. 4, Phase IIA," p. 1; "Final Report of Paraglider Research and Development Program, Contract NAS 9-1484," North American SID65-196, 19 Feb. 1965, p. 184.

60 "Monthly Progress Letter No. 4, Phase IIA," pp. 1, 3; "Schedule Analysis," 4 May 1962, p. 2, Chart 4.

61 Memo, Chamberlin to Gemini Procurement Office, Attn: Bake, "Paraglider Development Program, initiation of Phase II, Part B," GPO-00015, 19 March 1962, with enclosure, "Statement of Work for Phase II, Part B, Prototype Development in the Paraglider Development Program," 19 March 1962.

62 Memo, Chamberlin to Gemini Procurement Office, Attn: Bake, "Paraglider Development Program, Initiation of Phase II, Part B (1)," GPO-00086, 15 May 1962; letter, Witte to MSC, Attn: Bake, "Contract NAS 9-539, Paraglider Development Program, Phase II, Part B (1), Monthly Progress Letter No. 1," 62MA9042, 8 Aug. 1962; letter, R. L. Thomas to MSC, Attn: Bake, 62MA-7227, 5 July 1962, with enclosure, "Monthly Progress Letter No. 7, Paraglider Development Program, Phase IIA, 20 May 1962 to 20 June 1962," p. 1; letter contract, NAS 9-539, for Paraglider Development Program, Phase II, Part B (I), Advanced Trainer and Prototype Wing Design, 25 June 1962; "Abstract of Meeting on Paraglider Landing System, July 19, 1962," 21 July 1962; negotiated contract, NAS 9-539, for Paraglider Development Program, Phase 11, Part B(1), 31 Oct. 1962.

63 "Schedule Analysis," 4 May 1962, p. 2; letter, Seamans to Rubel, 10 July 1962, with enclosure, "Program Summary for Gemini," 3rd, 10th, and 11th charts.


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