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Houbolt
Houbolt, seen here in 1962, was the mastermind behind the approach that led to successful Apollo landings on the Moon. (credit: NASA)

Academic honors for a spaceflight prophet

Amidst all of the regular university degrees granted during this season there are always a scattering of honorary awards for special lifetime achievements. One particular honorary doctorate, awarded on May 15 at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, honors a man who more than any other single human being made the Apollo lunar landings possible. And unless today’s space experts learn to emulate his vision, courage, and soft-spoken stubbornness, the grandiose “Vision for Space Exploration” plans for resuming human flight beyond low Earth orbit may fail to be realized.

John Houbolt, now 86, played the critical role at the dawn of the Space Race when he adopted and then championed the lunar flight path called “Lunar Orbit Rendezvous”. During that time the mainstream strategy was to build a spaceship powerful enough to land directly on the Moon and then return from the lunar surface directly to Earth. The rocket team led by the German expatriate Wernher von Braun wanted to build a super-rocket called the Nova, or at least use two as-yet-unproven Saturn 5 boosters to carry pieces into orbit for in-flight hookup.

Unless today’s space experts learn to emulate Houbolt’s vision, courage, and soft-spoken stubbornness, the grandiose “Vision for Space Exploration” plans for resuming human flight beyond low Earth orbit may fail to be realized.

Although he never claimed to have originated the idea (and in later years historians found earlier references in British space literature of the 1940’s and even suggestions about a Russian proposal back in the 1930’s), Houbolt (rhymes with “cobalt”) argued that mathematical analysis of weights and reliabilities demonstrated that building a small lunar landing craft (and leaving the heavy Earth landing capsule and its fuel in orbit above the Moon) was the best approach.

The graduation ceremony took place in the university’s big “flying saucer” basketball arena. Houbolt himself did not address the crowd (the commencement speaker was NBC TV newsman Bill Geist). “Other participants helped him move from his seat to the front of the stage when his turn came,” noted one attendee. “When the ceremony was over, another scholar assisted him to the wheelchair lift and rode it down with him, so that he didn’t have to negotiate the steps.” Yet Houbolt, by stature a tall man, walked straight and proud—as he had every right to.

Tribute from a Moonwalker

Buzz Aldrin, who studied orbital rendezvous at MIT and as an astronaut was to bet his life on it for the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969, told me recently that he saluted Houbolt’s “persistence in prevailing over the White House science administrator, Jerome Wiesner, and Wernher von Braun,” as well as every other NASA official. One by one, Houbolt badgered and cajoled the NASA leaders into realizing that his argument was convincing. NASA’s super spaceship inventor Max Faget was a bitter opponent (“His figures lie,” he is reported to have shouted—at first). In the ultimate confrontation at Wernher von Braun’s office, Houbolt’s arguments changed von Braun’s assessment of the strategy, and he became one of the idea’s most enthusiastic partisans. (See “Decision point”, The Space Review, November 9, 2004.)

“He inspired me to look at lunar cycle and Mars cycle orbits,” Aldrin continued, mentioning flight plans he has been working out for future human space routes. His LOR work “makes me continue to persevere in some out-of-the-box thinking,” Aldrin added.

A similar approach seems critical today as competing roadmaps are endlessly argued inside NASA and its contractor team. Some call for Moon bases on the way to Mars, and others skip the Moon entirely. Some lay out a step-by-step reconstruction of the Apollo strategy, while others argue for staging areas in gravitational neutral points between Earth and the Moon. One particularly intriguing recent study from the International Academy of Astronauts attempts to shift NASA’s attention to a “Sun-Earth Lagrange Point” over a million kilometers out from Earth, nowhere near the Moon.

Roger Launius, former NASA Chief Historian and now with the National Air and Space Museum, described how Houbolt’s approach in 1961–1962 was the kind of thinking that is needed today: “In many ways, the lunar mode decision was an example of heterogeneous engineering, a process that recognizes that technological issues are also simultaneously organizational, economic, social, and political,” he wrote. “Various interests often clash in the decision-making process as difficult calculations have to be made and decisions taken.”

Since that is an accurate description of the current state of NASA efforts to plot its future paths through space, it is sobering to realize that many historians argue that without the Houbolt-led push for LOR almost half a century ago, the entire manned lunar landing program might never have succeeded. And without somebody taking on the Houboltian mantle today and bringing sanity to the current planning chaos, the prospects of a successful human breakout from near-Earth space remain dubious at best.

Space whiz from the prairie

Houbolt’s Illinois connection goes way back. His family had lived in Joliet for many years, and he attended the university, earning his bachelor’s (1940) and master’s (1942) degrees in civil engineering at the U. of I. Although he later received a PhD in Technical Sciences in 1957 from ETH (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich), he always considered the Illinois school his true alma mater, and two years ago donated his entire collection of professional papers to their library.

In January, when announcing Houbolt as one of five recipients of honorary degrees, university spokesman Jeff Unger noted that he “is internationally known for his ability to provide simple solutions to complex problems.” He added that a statue of him stands at a NASA space museum, beside that of Alan Shepard, the first American astronaut. “The two were chosen to represent mankind’s greatest achievement in space, the Apollo 11 moon landing,” Unger explained.

It is sobering to realize that many historians argue that without the Houbolt-led push for LOR almost half a century ago, the entire manned lunar landing program might never have succeeded.

James R. Hansen, the space historian who chronicled Houbolt’s story in Enchanted Rendezvous, considers it an open question whether the Apollo program would even have succeeded without the selection of the LOR approach. “Whether NASA’s choice of the LOR concept would have been made in the summer of 1962 or at any other later time without the research information, commitment, and crusading zeal of Houbolt remains a matter for historical conjecture,” he wrote. His basic contribution, however, and that of his associates who in their more quiet ways also developed and advocated LOR, seems now to be beyond debate.

Houbolt and his associates, wrote Hansen, “were the first in NASA to recognize the fundamental advantages of the LOR concept, and for a critical period in the early 1960s, they also were the only ones inside the agency to foster it and fight for it.”

Pathways into the future

And this is the lesson of the past that is desperately needed by the future: “The story of the genesis of the LOR concept thus testifies to the essential importance of the single individual contribution even within the context of a large organization based on teamwork,” wrote Hansen. “It also underscores the occasionally vital role played by the unpopular and minority opinion.”

If the lunar landing had not been accomplished as quickly as it was, or if a series of daunting technological setbacks had hit the US just as internal and external crises were mounting, it’s entirely possible that the project would have been set aside and never resumed. George Low, a top NASA leader in the 1960’s (whose own son later became a space shuttle astronaut), wrote in 1982 “that had the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous Mode not been chosen, Apollo would not have succeeded.” Quoted in Enchanted Rendezvous, he asserted that the other strategies “would have been so complex technically, that there would have been major setbacks in the program, and it probably would have failed along the way.”

“The story of the genesis of the LOR concept thus testifies to the essential importance of the single individual contribution even within the context of a large organization based on teamwork,” wrote Hansen.

But this alternate history didn’t happen. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Eagle module on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility, Houbolt was sitting quietly in a corner of the VIP viewing room at Mission Control in Houston. Turning from his seat near the front row, von Braun, a space enthusiast whose own professional integrity and engineering intuition had allowed him to abandon his own passionately-held beliefs in the face of Houbolt’s better idea, caught Houbolt’s eye. He gave him a thumbs up and said, simply, “John, it worked beautifully.” All Houbolt could think at that moment, he later recalled, was “By golly, the world ought to stop right at this moment.”

Historian Hansen’s conclusion, however, demonstrates that Houbolt’s contributions would not merely be measured by Apollo, but would reverberate forward into the future. “Sometimes one person alone or a small group of persons may have the best answer to a problem,” Hansen wrote. “And those who believe passionately in their ideas must not quit, even in the face of the strongest opposition or pressures for conformity.”


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