Chamberlin Departs

[123] The dispute between NASA and the Department of Defense about who was to have the last word in Gemini, whatever might be its long-range impact, agitated only the highest echelons. MSC engineers knew little of what was going on and, in any case, had their hands full with their own problems. Gemini reprogramming had slowed the rate at which money was being spent, but costs still spiraled upwards. Although stretching out the program was bound to offset immediate savings by larger total costs unless parts of the program were chopped out, the size of the increase soon surpassed anything that might have been expected. Meanwhile the revised program suffered from the growing severity of the technical problems that had afflicted it before and during the fall budget crisis. Paraglider testing and Titan II anomalies loomed largest.

Despite some talk about dropping paraglider from Gemini to meet fiscal constraints, paraglider development came through largely unscathed. While other major systems suffered more or less drastic cutback paraglider's budget expanded. By the end of 1962, contract changes and overruns had raised the price of the current phase of paraglider development from four and a half to over seven million dollars.22

North American Aviation, the paraglider contractor, was still having problems with flight testing. The success of 23 October 1962, which concluded the test series of a half-scale model launched with its wing already deployed, proved only a respite. The next step was trying to deploy the wing in flight. North American refitted the half-scale test vehicle at its plant in Downey, California, and shipped it back to Edwards Air Force Base for its first flight test, scheduled for 27 November. The all-too-familiar pattern of minor problems, mostly electrical, delayed the flight day by day until 10 December, and then the results were disappointing. The capsule tumbled from the helicopter, fouling the drogue parachute intended to pull the can in which the wing was stored away from the paraglider. Wing inflation intensified the tumbling and the emergency drogue parachute ejected too soon. When the capsule spun down past 1600 meters, the minimum recovery altitude, radio command detached the wing and allowed the capsule to descend on its emergency parachute.23

The next attempt, on 8 January 1963, after its share of delays, produced even worse results. There was no tumbling, but the storage can was late in separating; so the capsule was falling too fast when the wing started to inflate and its membrane tore. As the capsule fell below 1,600 meters, its wing not yet fully deployed, emergency recovery was ordered to no avail. The main parachute remained packaged, and the capsule crashed. Picking through the wreckage, North American [125] inspectors found that a squib switch in the emergency parachute's electrical system had misfired. That was not the only problem, but it was the most discouraging--the switch was a standard item, much used in the space program and not known to have failed in 30,000 successive firings. GPO warned North American to be sure everything that had gone wrong was corrected before trying again.24

A month later, North American reported to the paraglider coordination panel that five distinct failures had been spotted, studied, and fixed. The panel was convinced, but Chamberlin was not. After an extended meeting with George Jeffs, manager of the paraglider program for North American, Chamberlin decided to give the trouble plagued half-scale flight-test program another chance.25 Once again, the current crop of troubles had little impact on plans for the next phase of development, which covered the rest of flight testing, pilot training, and paraglider production. Part of Phase III, gearing up for production, was worked out and under way by 22 January. North American's proposals for the rest of the program were ready by the end of the month. GPO approved and, with the concurrence of NASA Headquarters, readied a new contract.26 But the Office of Manned Space Flight had second thoughts and stopped the procurement action "for the time being."27 The halt proved to be permanent.

The Gemini paraglider program foundered on North American's third attempt to deploy a half-scale wing in flight. Although the first two flights had been at least partial successes, the third, on 11 March, offered no comfort at all, The storage can failed to separate, so the wing could neither eject nor inflate. When the radioed command to deploy the emergency parachute produced no response, the second half-scale test vehicle joined the first as wreckage.28 Paraglider testing came to an abrupt halt.

Gemini's other major headache early in 1963, Titan II, posed a far greater threat to the program as a whole. There would still be a Project Gemini without paraglider, but not without Titan II. Despite some hopeful signs, the status of the launch vehicle remained very much in doubt. The central problem was still the lengthwise vibration, or Pogo, that bounced the vehicle while its first-stage engine was burning; but other technical problems began to compete for attention. Efforts to resolve them were coming up against a crucial disparity between Air Force and NASA goals in Titan II development.

The Martin Company's proposed answer to Pogo - a surge-suppression standpipe in the first-stage oxidizer feedline - was installed in the soon to be infamous Missile N-11, the eighth Titan II that the Air Force launched in its missile development program, on 6 December 1962. The supposed cure, far from damping the Pogo effect, raised it to +Sg, and the violent shaking induced the Stage I engines to shut down too soon.29 A rueful Robert Gilruth told his fellow members of [126] the Manned Space Flight Management Council that he saw one hope: "the fact that the addition of the surge chamber affected the oscillation problem may indicate that the work is being done in the right place."30

The next Titan II, launched on 19 December, carried no standpipes, but increased fuel-tank pressure, which had shown good results on some earlier flights, again reduced the Pogo level. This missile also featured oxidizer feedlines made of aluminum instead of steel, which seemed to have some bearing on the sharply lessened amplitude of oscillation. This was disconcerting, no reason for the effect being readily apparent. The Pogo problem clearly needed more study.31 In the tenth flight, on 10 January 1963, Pogo hit a new low of six-tenths the force of gravity (±0.6g) at the spot on the missile where a manned spacecraft would be located. This was getting close to the level tolerated on Mercury flights, roughly ±0.45g. But Gemini's astronauts were supposed to take a larger part than Mercury's in flying their craft into orbit. NASA's goal for the Titan II remained ±0.25g at most. Nonetheless, despite the still large gap between performance and goal, increased fuel-tank pressure had so reduced "POGO type oscillations" that Gilruth could say, "this now becomes a secondary problem."32

He may have been more concerned about another problem than he was optimistic about Pogo. Despite the low Pogo level on the tenth flight, the missile's second-stage thrust was only half what it should have been. On some earlier flights, the failure of second-stage engines to build up to full thrust had been blamed on Pogo. That now appeared doubtful. Another source of unease, and the one Gilruth now tabbed as the major problem, was the threat of unstable combustion in the second-stage engine. Static firing tests during January 1963 showed that the Aerojet-General motors might have trouble reaching a steady burn after the shock of starting.33

But this was as yet mostly surmise, and Chamberlin's concern still centered on Pogo, chiefly because he was not at all certain how far the Air Force Ballistic Systems Division (BSD), which was in charge of Titan II missile development, would go to meet Gemini's much stricter demands.34 His fears were confirmed on 29 January, when BSD's Titan Program Office froze the missile design with respect to devices for cutting vibration levels, since increased pressure in first-stage fuel tanks and aluminum oxidizer feedlines reduced Pogo below specifications for the missile air frame and systems.

This was an answer only for the missile. Tank pressures were nearing structural safety limits, and more pressure could not lower the vibrations much further, anyway. But the level was still too high for Gemini. BSD intended to keep looking for a way to achieve the lower value NASA wanted, but early in March, BSD decided that it could no longer accept the costs and risks of efforts to reduce the oscillations any further.35

[127] Chamberlin had no direct line to BSD, his only channel being through SSD. With BSD in charge of missile development and SSD of Gemini launch vehicles, NASA was largely a spectator. Chamberlin could do little more than appeal to SSD to intercede with BSD. Since there was no flight test program for the Gemini booster, the Titan II missile research and development program was the only chance to solve Gemini problems. But BSD was responsible for a weapon system, not a launch vehicle, and was understandably loath to risk the missile for the booster.

During March, therefore, Chamberlin spent a lot of time on the telephone, asking Richard Dineen, in charge of Gemini launch vehicle development for SSD, for help not only with Pogo but on the threatening combustion instability problem. Chamberlin hit hard on his long-standing demand for a rigorous qualification program but now stressed that qualification must be "followed by a suitable number of successful flight tests" to reach the required level of confidence in a booster for manned space flight. Me wanted to know what plans Dineen had for making sure that the Air Force test program would meet Gemini's needs, and Dineen promised a report in short order.36

Word of Titan II's troubles was slow to reach NASA's upper echelons. When James Marsh, head of the Gemini launch vehicle program at Aerospace Corporation, discussed the current status of the booster at a meeting of the newly formed Gemini Program Planning Board on 7 March, he was far from alarmist. Seamans got the impression that things were well in hand. A detailed redesign of the turbopump impellers in the first-stage engines would take care of the Pogo problem, according to Marsh, and the unstable burning in the second-stage engines was no risk to Gemini.37

[128] This view was rudely shattered a week later, when Seamans traveled with Secretary McNamara and a party of Defense officials to Houston for a close look at Gemini. He learned for the first time that MSC was now thinking of two unmanned flights, rather than one, cutting the number of manned missions to ten, the first delayed five months until August 1964. Trouble with Titan II was offered as the main reason for this drastic change in schedule, and combustion instability was cited as potentially a greater problem than Pogo. McNamara assured Seamans and MSC that Titan II would be fixed, but Seamans was still doubtful.38

This was only three days after the crash of the second half-scale paraglider test vehicle. The conjunction of the newly revealed impact of Titan II problems and the latest in the series of paraglider mishaps suggested that Project Gemini was in deep technical trouble. To make matters worse, Gemini had new money worries. The reprogramming effort of the last quarter of 1962 had slowed the rate at which Gemini was spending money but at the expense of stretching out the program. In the nature of things, a longer program was liable to cost more overall; when Holmes reported, early in February, that Gemini's total cost would reach $834.1 million, the figure was not too disturbing. That was about $60 million over the lowest estimate in September 1962 but well short of the $925 million that had then appeared to be a possibility.39

Just a month later, however, on B March 1963, MSC's revised preliminary budget for fiscal year 1964 reached NASA Headquarters, and it was a shock. Gemini's estimated total had shot over the billion-dollar mark. The new figures was nearly twice the cost first approved in December 1961 and almost $200 million higher than the figures Seamans and other NASA officials had been using as the basis for NASA's fiscal year 1964 budget request, most recently in House hearings earlier that week.40 So large an increase, coming on the heels of what had seemed to be a resolution of Gemini's funding problems, took NASA Headquarters by complete surprise. Chamberlin, as manager of Gemini on the field level, knew what was happening. But, waiting for an opportune moment to break the news, he was overtaken by events.

Unexplained cost increases combined with seemingly critical problems in paraglider and Titan II development to bring Chamberlin's tenure to an abrupt end.41 On 19 March, Gilruth relieved Chamberlin of his duties as project manager and assigned him to the post of Senior Engineering Advisor to the Director, cutting him off from any direct connection with Gemini. Charles Mathews took over as acting manager. He came to Gemini from the Engineering and Development Directorate, where he had recently added the job of Deputy Assistant Director to his work as Chief of the Spacecraft Technology Division. Mathews was a charter member of Space Task Group, having come [129] with Gilruth from Langley's Pilotless Aircraft Research Division. He had headed STG's Flight Operations Division until 17 January 1962, when he moved over to the Engineering and Development Directorate as chief of what was then called the Spacecraft Research Division.42

When Chamberlin left Gemini, an era ended. In the large and complex undertakings of modern high technology, one person can seldom be credited with so large a share in the shaping of a project as Chamberlin deserved for Gemini. Much of the ultimate success of the project had its roots in Chamberlin's brilliance as a designer and skill as an engineer, but so did some of the current harvest of troubles. The talented engineer can always see new ways to improve his machines, but the successful manager must keep his eyes on costs and schedules, even if that sometimes means settling for something good enough instead of better.

But perhaps in a deeper sense, Chamberlin can be seen as a victim of the way Gemini was created and funded. Approved as something of an afterthought in the American manned space flight program, absent [130] from NASA long-range budget plans, Gemini began with shaky finances. Crushing time pressure made things worse. Gemini, although in most ways just as sophisticated as Apollo, began later and had to finish its flight program much sooner than the lunar program. As Chamberlin later remarked, "we went ahead as fast as possible with whatever funding could be scrounged. . . . If Gemini were too late, there would be no need for it, and it would be canceled." In this setting, technical problems that might otherwise have appeared little more than routine assumed a more ominous guise.

Chamberlin's colleagues in and out of NASA deeply respected him as an engineer and designer but also saw his flaws as a manager and recognized the difficulties of the situation. His sudden and largely unexpected departure was thus not the blow to project morale that it might have been. The shock was also eased by the identity of the man who replaced him. Mathews was well known and widely esteemed. He took over a program that did seem to be in trouble.43


22 NASA Negotiated Contract, NAS 9-167, "Paraglider Development Program, Phase II, Part A, System Research and Development," 9 Feb. 1962, signed by Glenn F. Bailey; letter, George W. Jeffs to Robert R. Gilruth, 28 Dec. 1962, with enclosures, briefing charts; NASA Negotiated Contract, NAS 9- 539, "Paraglider Development Program, Phase II, Part B(1)," 31 Oct. 1962, signed by Bailey and (for North American) L. L. Waite.

23 Letter, Jeffs to MSC, Attn: Ronald C. Bake, "Contract NAS 9-167, Paraglider Development Program, Phase II, Part A, Monthly Progress Letter No.12 (21 October-20 November 1962)," 62MA15807, 31 Dec. 1962, p. 2; letter, Jeffs to MSC, Attn: Bake, "Contract NAS 9-167, Paraglider Development Program, Phase II, Part A, Monthly Progress Letter No. 13 (21 November-20 December 1962)," 63MA1040, 18 Jan. 1963, p. 2; TWX, A. A. Tischler to James A. Chamberlin, "Preliminary Flight Test Report on Flight 6-3A-B/ B/First HSTV Deployment," MA33082, 17 Dec. 1962; TWX, Tischler to Chamberlin, "Test Evaluation Review - Half Scale Paraglider Deployment Flight No. 1," MA33583, 21 Dec. 1962; "Flight Test No. 6, Phase II, Part A, Paraglider Development Program," North American, SID 62-1060-6, 10 Jan. 1963, pp. 9, 10.

24 Letter, Jeffs to MSC, Attn: Bake, "Contract NAS 9-167, Paraglider Development Program, Phase II, Part A, Monthly Progress Letter No. 14," 63MA3058, 28 Feb. 1963, pp. I-2; TWX, Tischler to MSC, Attn: Chamberlin, "Preliminary Test Evaluation Review - Paraglider Deployment Flight Test No. 2," MA01569, 16 Jan. 1963; "Flight Test No. 7, Phase II, Part A, Paraglider Development Program," North American, SID 62-1060-7, I Feb. 1963, pp. 9-10; Project Gemini Quarterly Status Report No. 4, for period ending 28 Feb. 1963, p. 10; "Abstract of Meeting on Paraglider Landing System, January 17, 1963," 23 Jan. 1963; "MSC Status Report," prepared for Gilruth's presentation at the 14th Management Council Meeting, 29 Jan. 1963, pp. 36-37.

25 "Abstract of Meeting on Paraglider Landing System, February 6, 1963," 8 Feb. 1963; "Abstract of Meeting on Paraglider Landing System, February 13, 1963," 18 Feb. 1963; memo, Chamberlin to Robert L. Kline, "Continuation of Phase II, Part A, Paraglider Development Program, Contract NAS 9-167," GPO-00618, 20 Feb. 1963.

26 Letter, Gilruth to NASA Hq., Attn: Ernest W. Brackett, "Transmittal of a Procurement Plan and Request for Proposal for the Gemini Paraglider Program, Phase III, covering Astronaut Training, Balance of Flight Test Program and Paraglider Hardware Production," 9 Oct. 1962, with enclosures; Chamberlin, activity report, 21 Dec. 1962-24 Jan. 1963, p. 4; letter, Jeffs to MSC, Attn: Kline, "Contract NAS 9-539, Amendment No. 6, Paraglider Landing System for Project Gemini, Phase III, Monthly Progress Letter No. 1, 21 January through 20 February 1963," 63MA4873, 3 April 1963, p. 1; Bailey to North American, "Amendment Number 6 to Letter Contract NAS 9-539," GP-17, 27 Dec. 1962, with enclosure, "Exhibit A: Statement of Work for a Paraglider Landing System for Project Gemini"; Quarterly Status Report No. 4, p. 11; letter, Harrison A. Storms, Jr., to MSC, Attn: Bake, "Transmittal of Cost Proposal for Gemini Paraglider Program, Phase III," 63MA142, 31 Jan. 1963, with enclosure, "Cost Proposal and Supporting Data for Gemini Paraglider Landing System, Phase III," 31 Jan. 1963; "Technical Proposal for a Paraglider Recovery System for Gemini Spacecraft," North American, SID 63-46-1, 31 Jan. 1963; "Management Proposal for a Paraglider Recovery System for Gemini Spacecraft," North American, SID 63-46-2, 31 Jan.1963; Chamberlin, activity report, 30 Dec. 1962-5 Jan. 1963, p. 1; memo, Chamberlin to Kline, "Contract NAS 9-539," GPO-00594, 8 Feb. 1963.

27 Memo, Chamberlin to Gemini Procurement Office, "Phase III, Part 2 of the Gemini Paraglider Landing System Progress," 20 Feb. 1963.

28 "Abstract of Meeting on Paraglider Landing System, March 13, 1963," 15 March 1963; TWX, Tischler to MSC, Attn: Chamberlin, "Preliminary Flight Test Report - Half Scale Paraglider Deployment Test No.3, Contract NAS 9-167," 14 March 1963; "Flight Test No.8, Phase II, Part A, Paraglider Development Program," North American, SID 621060-8, 25 March 1963; letter, Jeffs to MSC, Attn: Kline, "Contract NAS 9-167, Paraglider Development Program, Phase II, Part A, Monthly Progress Letter No. 16,21 February through 31 March 1963," 63MA5879, 23 April 1963, p. 3.

29 Quarterly status report No.3, for period ending 30 Nov. 1962, p. 28; Raymond L. Zavasky, recorder, "Minutes of Senior Staff Meeting, December 14, 1962," p. 4; R. H. Prause and R. L. Goldman, "Longitudinal Oscillation Instability Study: POGO," Martin ER13374, December 1964, p. 3.

30 Memo, Clyde B. Bothmer, executive secretary, to dist., 27 Dec. 1962, with enclosure, "Minutes of the Thirteenth Meeting of the OMSF Management Council, held on Tuesday, December 18, 1962," p. 2.

31 "Titan II Post-Flight Briefing," Martin, n.d., for Missile N-13 flight on 19 Dec. 1962; Purser, recorder, "Minutes of Project Gemini Management Panel Meeting. . . , December 20, 1962," p. 2; Zavasky, "Minutes of Senior Staff Meeting, January 4, 1963," p. 5; "Abstract of Meeting on Titan II, January 4, 1963," 9 Jan. 1963; Prause and Goldman, "POGO Study," p. 3.

32 "MSC Status Report," for 29 Jan. 1963, p. 39; "Titan II Post-Flight Briefing," Martin, n.d., for Missile N-15 flight on 10 Jan. 1963.

33 "Briefing" for Missile N-15; "Aerospace Corporation Annual Report, Fiscal 19621963," n.d.; letter, James A. Marsh to Richard C. Dineen, "GEMINI Launch Vehicle Engine Status and Its Effect upon the GEMINI Program," 1962.1-115, 23 Aug. 1962.

34 Zavasky, "Minutes of Senior Staff Meeting, January 11, 1963," pp. 2-3.

35 "Joint Titan II/Gemini Development Plan on Missile Oscillation Reduction and Engine Reliability and Improvement," [Air Force Systems Command], 5 April 1963 (revised 7 May 1963), p. 5; Purser, "Project Gemini Management Panel Meeting . . . , February 15, 1963," p. 4; Quarterly Status Report No. 4, pp. 27-28.

36 TWX, Chamberlin to SSD, Attn: Dineen, GPO-50671, 13 March 1963; TWX, Chamberlin to Dineen, GPO-50673, 14 March 1963.

37 "Minutes of the Third Meeting, Gemini Program Planning Board, Thursday, March 7, 1963"; memo, Seamans to D. Brainerd Holmes, "1. Titan II Booster Problem; 2. Paraglider Deployment," 21 March 1963.

38 Seamans memo, 21 March 1963; Purser, notes on meeting with McNamara and Seamans, 14 March 1963; Chamberlin, activity report, 11-17 March 1963, p. 2.

39 "Minutes of First GPPB Meeting," enclosure 1; memo, Holmes to Adm., "Project Gemini Cost Estimates," 29 April 1963, with enclosure.

40 Holmes memo, 29 April 1963, with enclosure, "Status of Project Gemini Cost Estimates [as of March 8, 1963]"; U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Science and Astronautics, 1964 NASA Authorization: Hearings on H.R. 5466 (Superseded by H.R. 7500), 88th Cong., 1st sess., 1963, p. 64.

41 André J. Meyer, Jr., interview, Houston, 9 Jan. 1967; memo, Holmes to Assoc. Adm., "Problems associated with Project Gemini," 25 March 1963.

42 MSC Announcement No. 168, "New Assignment of Personnel," 19 March 1963; MSC Announcement No. 125, "Appointment of Deputy Assistant Director for Engineering and Development," 30 Nov. 1962; Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., James M. Grimwood, and Charles C. Alexander, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, NASA SP-4201 (Washington, 1966), pp. 79, 115; MSC Announcement No. 11, "Designation of Chief, Flight Operations Division," 17 Jan. 1962.

43 Meyer interview; James T. Rose, interview, St. Louis, 13 April 1966; letter, Chamberlin to Grimwood, 26 March 1974, with comments.


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