James A. Chamberlin

By Chris Gainor
November 26, 2001

James Arthur Chamberlin was one of the major figures in aircraft design in Canada before he moved to the United States and made important contributions to the the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and shuttle programs in his career at NASA and in private industry.

Born in Kamloops, British Columbia, on May 23, 1915, Chamberlin graduated in 1936 from the University of Toronto with a bacheloršs degree in mechanical engineering. He then went to London, England, where he earned a masteršs degree from the Imperial College of Science and Technology in 1939. Before returning to Canada, Chamberlin worked briefly at Martin-Baker, the ejection seat manufacturers. Moving to Montreal, Quebec, he worked for Federal Aircraft Ltd. on the Canadian version of the British Avro Anson aircraft in 1940 and 1941.

In 1942 and 1942, he was chief engineer at Clark Ruse Aircraft in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where he was in charge of engineering and overhaul for aircraft used in training and anti-submarine work. For the balance of the war, Chamberlin was a research engineer at Noorduyn Aviation in Montreal.

In February, 1946, Chamberlin joined the engineering staff at Avro Aircraft Ltd., of Toronto. He was one of the top people at Avro Canada, working as chief aerodynamicist on the Avro C-102 Jetliner and the CF-100 jet interceptor. Both of these aircraft broke new ground for the Canadian aircraft industry.

By the time Avro moved into design and construction of the CF-105 Avro Arrow in the mid 1950s, Chamberlin was Avrošs chief of technical design.The twin-engined delta-winged supersonic jet interceptor was considered the most advanced aircraft of its time. Only five Arrows flew before the project was cancelled by the Canadian government on February 20, 1959.

In April, 1959, Chamberlin and two dozen other engineers from Avro Canada were recruited by NASA for the Space Task Group at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. The Avro group at NASA eventually included 32 engineers. The Space Task Group later moved to Houston, Texas, to become the core of what is today the Johnson Space Center.

Chamberlin soon became head of engineering for Project Mercury, the first U.S. human spacecraft. In that role, he acted as project manager for Mercury and saw the spacecraft through their manufacturing processes. He was also responsible for troubleshooting problems that cropped up during the early Mercury flights.

Mercury was already designed by the time Chamberlin joined NASA, but once Mercury was flying, Chamberlin began working on a two-man spacecraft capable of changing its orbit, docking with other spacecraft, and permitting astronauts to "walk" in space. In 1961, he became Geminišs first Program Manager. Although he left that position in 1963, the Gemini spacecraft he designed marked a clear advance over Mercury. In 10 manned Gemini flights in 1965 and 1966, U.S. astronauts captured the lead in the space race with the Soviet Union and laid down the foundation for the success of the Apollo Program.

Chamberlin made many direct contributions to the success of Apollo. He was one of the first people at NASA to see that Apollo would succeed by using the lunar orbit rendezvous flight mode, rather than the direct flight mode favoured at NASA in 1961, when President Kennedy launched the Moon program. After he left Gemini in 1963, Chamberlin became one of NASAšs top troubleshooters in Apollo. He helped solve problems with the Apollo Command and Service Modules, the Lunar Module, the extravehicular mobility unit used by astronauts to walk on the Moon, and the Saturn rockets. Before he left NASA in 1970, Chamberlin was involved in drawing up early design concepts for the space shuttle.

Chamberlin joined McDonnell Douglas Astronautics, helping to develop its unsuccessful bid for the space shuttle contract. When the contractor won a shuttle support contract, Chamberlin supervised detailed design and development work on the shuttle.

Jim Chamberlin died in Houston, Texas, on March 8, 1981. He had become a U.S. citizen in 1964. Chamberlin and his wife Ella had two children, Arthur Chamberlin and Shirley Ditloff.

While at NASA, Chamberlin received many honours, including the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal. He also received the NASA Exceptional Engineering Achievement Medal for his work on shuttle. He was a Professional Engineer of the Province of Ontario, a member of the Institute of Aeronautical Scientists and an Associate Fellow of the Canadian Aeronautical Institute. In 2001, he was inducted into Canadašs Aviation Hall of Fame.