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Space trailblazer Max Faget dies

Engineer designed NASA's Mercury capsules

Maxime Faget is shown in this undated photo.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

(CNN) -- The designer of the Mercury space capsules that took the first Americans into orbit has died at age 83, NASA announced Sunday.

Maxime Faget led the space agency's engineering and development branch from 1961 to 1981, leading the design work on every manned U.S. spacecraft from the Mercury capsules to the space shuttles, NASA officials said.

"Without Max Faget's innovative designs and thoughtful approach to problem-solving, America's space program would have had trouble getting off the ground," NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said in a written statement Sunday. "He also was an aeronautics pioneer. In fact, it was his work on supersonic flight research that eventually led to his interest in space flight."

Faget, who died Saturday at his home in Houston, Texas, was one of the original 35 engineers in NASA's Space Task Group, which was formed in 1958 to develop a manned spacecraft.

That resulted in the development of the Mercury, which carried astronaut Alan Shepard on his suborbital flight in 1961 and into history as the first American in space. Less than a year later, John Glenn became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth, in another Mercury capsule.

In a career that spanned four decades, Faget participated in the feasibility study for flights to the moon and the space shuttle program, according to NASA's Web site.

"Max was a genuine icon, a down-to-earth Cajun with a very nuts-and-bolts approach to engineering," William Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, said in an article on the agency's Web site. "He contributed immeasurably to America's successes in human space flight. His genius allowed us to compete and win the space race to the moon."

Faget's name appears along with other NASA engineers on a patent for the Mercury spacecraft.

Faget was born August 26, 1921, in Stann Creek, British Honduras. He graduated from Louisiana State University with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1943. Faget joined the Navy and served as a submarine officer during World War II, according to NASA.

Faget held numerous patents and had received awards including induction into the National Space Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame, according to NASA.

His wife, Nancy, died in 1994. He is survived by his children Ann, Carol, Guy and Nanette, and 10 grandchildren, according to NASA.

Last week, another NASA pioneer, Gordon Cooper, died at 77. Cooper was one of the original seven Mercury astronauts. (Full story)

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