John C. Houbolt, Unsung Hero of the Apollo
Program, Dies at Age 95
Houbolt, a critical factor in the race to the Moon, has died at 95. I never met him, but as an "Apollo kid" I certainly watched his work. He was instrumental in selecting the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) plan that got us on the Moon in JFK's public timeline. As Astra, doc.
From NASA press release:
"In the space race of the 1950s and '60s, the leading voices were rocket
scientist Wernher von Braun and ... another guy. Household names included Neil
Armstrong, Alan Shepard and ... oh, you know, the fellow who pushed the idea of
a separate crew capsule and lunar lander. America wouldn't have won the race,
the Eagle wouldn't have landed in 1969 and the Apollo 13 crew would never have
survived if it weren't for an engineer from [the] NASA Langley Research Center.
John C. Houbolt."
So reads a feature on HamptonRoads.com written in 2009 about one of the
unsung heroes of the Apollo Program. Houbolt may have never become a household
name, but his ideas and contributions to Apollo made it possible to achieve the
goal of landing a crew on the Moon and safely returning them by the end of the
decade. As a member of of Lunar Mission Steering Group, Houbolt had been
studying various technical aspects of space rendezvous since 1959 and was
convinced, like several others at Langley, that lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR) was
not only the most feasible way to make it to the moon before the decade was out,
it was the only way. At the time many scientists thought the only way to achieve
a lunar landing was to either build a giant rocket twice the size of the Saturn
V (the concept was called Nova) or to launch multiple Saturn Vs to assemble the
lunar ship in Earth orbit (an approach known as Earth orbit rendezvous).
In November 1961, Houbolt took the bold step of skipping proper channels and
writing a 9-page private letter directly to incoming Associate Administrator Dr.
Robert C. Seamans. Describing himself somewhat melodramatically "as a voice in
the wilderness," Houbolt protested LOR's exclusion from the NASA debate on the
Apollo mission profile. "Do we want to go to the moon or not?" the Langley
engineer asked. "Why is Nova, with its ponderous size simply just accepted, and
why is a much less grandiose scheme involving rendezvous ostracized or put on
the defensive? I fully realize that contacting you in this manner is somewhat
unorthodox," Houbolt admitted, "but the issues at stake are crucial enough to us
all that an unusual course is warranted." Houbolt clearly saw that the giant
Nova rocket and the expensive and complex Earth orbit rendezvous plan were
clearly not a realistic option--especially if the mission was to be accomplished
anywhere close to President Kennedy's timetable. While conducting a rendezvous
in orbit around the Moon was going to be a challenge, the weight, cost and
savings of using LOR were obvious once one realized that LOR was not
fundamentally much more difficult than Earth orbit rendezvous. This insights,
and Houbolt's brave and energetic advocacy of it, made all the difference.