Even those people who are familiar with the Apollo moon landings have likely not heard the name of Dr. John C. Houbolt. But had it not been for him, Americans would likely have not landed on the moon by the end of the 1960s. That is why it is appropriate that we mark his passing at the age of 95, as Collect Space noted on Thursday.
Some years ago Jim Oberg described Houbolt’s singular achievement in the pages of the Space Review. Houbolt developed the idea of lunar orbit rendezvous as a way to fulfill President Kennedy’s goal of putting a man on the moon. He had to overcome a great deal of opposition, especially from the formidable Wernher Von Braun, to get his idea accepted.
When President Kennedy announced his moon landing goal, there were two competing ideas about how to get to the moon. One was to launch a space craft directly to the moon on a massive, super heavy lift rocket called the Nova. The other would have involved launching two Saturn Vs to assemble the pieces of the moon ship in low Earth orbit before sending it on to the moon. Both ideas were horrendously expensive and complex.
Houbolt, building on work that had been done since the 1940s, hit upon the idea of splitting the moon ship into two parts. One would take the astronauts to lunar orbit. The other would land the astronaut on the moon while the first remained in lunar orbit. After the lunar surface mission was completed, the astronauts would leave the moon, dock with the orbiting ship, and then return to Earth. Thus was born the Apollo command and service module and the lunar landing module which could be launch with one Saturn V.
To say that Houbolt ran into opposition at NASA would be an understatement. He spent two and a half years convincing people that his method was not only the preferred way to go to the moon, but the only way. But he had one advantage that his opponents did not have, which was math. He was thus able to win over even the skeptical Von Braun.
Roughly 400,000 Americans, from the famous astronauts to humble technicians, contributed to the greatest engineering feat of all time. Most will remain in obscurity. John Houbolt, however, deserves some remembering as a man who had the singular insight that accomplished the moon landing and was willing to fight for it much to the betterment of the Apollo program and of the United States.