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 NASA Langley Research Center.
John C. Houbolt.
The forgotten man.
'Somewhat as a voice in the wilderness, I would like to pass on a few thoughts.’
– Letter from Houbolt to NASA headquarters
It’s a familiar story: The Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, and the United States panicked. President John F. Kennedy announced in 1961 that he wanted men – American men – on the moon by the end of the decade.
In the years between, engineers and dreamers at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton noodled over the best way to get to the moon, and they came up with the idea of saving weight by sending only part of a spaceship to the moon while the rest remained in orbit. They called it lunar-orbit rendezvous.
It was an idea before its time. The rest of NASA was thinking small steps – before the moon could be reached, man would first have to build a space station to orbit Earth and go to the moon from there. A small group of engineers at Langley, which was a center for in-atmosphere flight, taught themselves celestial mechanics and began plotting a direct course to the moon.
One of them was Houbolt, a farm boy from Illinois who had an innate talent for math. At a young age, he tutored the son of a wealthier family, at whose house he was allowed to play with toys his own family could not afford, such as Erector Sets.
As an engineer, he was always scribbling equations. His wife, Mary, said he wrote on grocery bags, on envelopes or on more unorthodox surfaces. He emerged one time from the bathroom, and when she went in, “here were equations written on the side of the bathtub.”
Houbolt earned a doctorate in Switzerland with a dissertation on heat-related problems of high-speed flight. On his return to the States, he focused on the timing of launches that would allow two spacecraft to rendezvous and connect while in orbit.
He became known as “the rendezvous man,” according to a book by NASA historian James Hansen. In his midlevel job, he had competition within the agency from more powerful men pushing other ideas. Houbolt insisted that lunar-orbit rendezvous, or LOR, offered significant savings in weight, which meant significant savings in fuel, which meant significant savings in money. But his insistence was largely ignored.
In 1960, after calculating that the savings would ripple through the entire chain of development, testing, manufacturing, flight operations and more, the 41-year-old Houbolt pledged to do whatever it took to get LOR accepted.
But he had miscalculated the opposition.
'His figures lie.’
– Langley colleague after Houbolt’s presentation at headquarters
“There were a lot of very powerful people at NASA involved in this,” said William Causey, a lawyer who is writing a book about the technical aspects of the moon mission. “Then along comes John Houbolt. He started to put this idea out, and everybody immediately shot it down.”
He was not dissuaded. He pitched LOR to committee after committee, and he bent the ear of NASA’s new associate director during a tour of Langley. As a result, Houbolt was invited to present his ideas at headquarters in Washington.
In December 1960, Houbolt outlined the LOR plan before a group of the agency’s leaders, including von Braun, the German rocket scientist who had turned himself over to the Americans during World War II and had since become director of the Marshall Space Flight Center.
After Houbolt finished, another Langley engineer declared that the calculations were wrong, adding, “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
The devastating attack from his own colleague shocked Houbolt, according to Hansen. But a month later, when NASA narrowed its options for reaching the moon to three, LOR was one of them.
The favored option was direct ascent, the approach envisioned by early science-fiction writers. A rocket would launch from Earth, back into a landing on the moon, then blast off and return home. The problem was that the rocket required so much fuel and was so heavy that it would have to be huge – the proposed Nova rocket was as large as a battleship, according to Hansen.
The second approach, like LOR, also involved two spacecraft joining up, but while orbiting Earth. This idea involved several launches, one after the other, to ferry men and supplies into orbit. Once there, the astronauts would assemble and fuel a craft to take them to the moon. Landing details had not been worked out.
The problem with this concept was time: Nobody had even orbited Earth yet, let alone joined two spacecraft or built something in space. Development of the idea and equipment would take many years.
A distant third was LOR. Many feared that if astronauts ran into trouble with a rendezvous at the moon, it was too far away for rescue. Should problems occur, better that they happen in Earth orbit instead of 250,000 miles away.
In April 1961, the Russians sent the first man into space. Shortly after that, the Bay of Pigs crisis piled more pressure on Kennedy to recover American pride.
In May of that year, Houbolt broke the chain of command by writing a letter in support of LOR to NASA headquarters.
'I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.’
– President John F. Kennedy, in a speech to Congress
JFK’s surprise announcement lent new urgency to NASA’s debate over a way to reach the moon. The method would have to be chosen quickly, and it would have to be achievable in short order.
Houbolt received a polite reply to his letter from the associate director, Robert Seamans, whom he had met briefly during the Langley tour. Seamans formed multiple committees to find a way to the moon, but LOR consistently came in last among the options. In fact, one member favored a plan to have astronauts build and fuel their return rocket on the moon itself.
Houbolt stubbornly insisted that lunar-orbit rendezvous was the best and least expensive option, making his pitch time after time. At home, he never mentioned the struggle.
“He really didn’t talk about his work,” said his wife, Mary.
“He probably talked less about work than any man I know.”
Frustrated, Houbolt risked his job again by writing another letter.
'Do we want to get to the moon or not?’
– Houbolt letter to Seamans
Nine single-spaced pages written to Seamans began with the words: “Somewhat as a voice in the wilderness, I would like to pass on a few thoughts on matters that have been of deep concern to me.”
He ended the first page with a nod to his unorthodox action. “It is conceivable that after reading this you may feel that you are dealing with a crank. Do not be afraid of this,” he wrote. “The important point is that you hear the ideas directly, not after they have filtered through a score or more of other people, with the attendant risk that they may not even reach you.”
Seamans read, and considered. He gave the letter to an associate, who gave it to someone else, who thought that Houbolt might just be onto something. Their interest in LOR was noted by others in the agency. Months passed. Proponents of direct ascent and Earth-orbit rendezvous could not overcome the problems of those options in time to meet the president’s deadline.
In June 1962, von Braun switched his allegiance to LOR, and most of the people at NASA quickly fell into line behind him. The next month, the agency announced that LOR would take astronauts to the moon.
Houbolt was in Paris at the time, giving a talk about airplanes and turbulence. His supervisor showed him the announcement in the New York Herald Tribune, shook Houbolt’s hand and said, according to Hansen: “I can safely say I’m shaking hands with the man who single-handedly saved the government $20 billion.”
'Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.’
– Neil Armstrong
The Gemini program of the 1960s proved that rendezvous could work, but the disastrous Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts in 1967 was a setback. Apollo 2 was dismantled during the ensuing investigation into what went wrong, and Apollo 3 was scrapped. Apollo 4, 5 and 6 were unmanned tests. Apollo 7 orbited Earth.
In December 1968, Apollo 8 orbited the moon. Apollo 9 flew the lunar lander for the first time. In May 1969, Apollo 10’s lander separated from the command module and descended to within a few miles of the moon’s surface before reconnecting with the mother ship and coming home.
On July 20, 1969, the Eagle landed. Houbolt, who by then had left NASA, was invited to Houston’s Mission Control to watch and listen. Sitting a few rows ahead of him, von Braun turned to catch Houbolt’s eye and gestured his approval.
“That was John’s vindication,” Causey said. “John truly was a lone voice in the wilderness. I don’t think we ever would have got there without Houbolt being persistent – and being right.”
'Houston, we’ve had a problem.’
– James Lovell, Apollo 13 astronaut
Mary Houbolt didn’t learn about her husband’s efforts until magazines started interviewing him.
“That was just John,” she said. “He just didn’t talk about those things.”
The concept of a separate lunar lander that would leave the command module, then return to it, more than proved its worth in 1970, when an exploding oxygen tank crippled Apollo 13 en route to the moon. The astronauts took refuge in the lunar lander while the ship returned home.
“I think it’s fair to say that John’s theory saved those astronauts,” Causey said.
The Houbolts moved from Williamsburg to Maine in 2001 to be closer to their three children. Now Mary lives alone in an apartment on the ocean shore, and she visits 90-year-old John every day at the nursing home. He has Parkinson’s disease.
“What John did will live for the ages,” said a former colleague.
David Ashford’s book “Spaceflight Revolution” devotes an entire chapter to Houbolt. His picture is in the Virginia Air & Space Center in Hampton, next to the Apollo 12 crew capsule, which landed men on the moon 40 years ago, on Nov. 19, 1969.
The recognition is good. The world will remember his hard work. As for Houbolt himself, he has dementia, and everything he did on behalf of Apollo and lunar-orbit rendezvous, he has forgotten.
Diane Tennant, (757) 446-2478, or firstname.lastname@example.org