John Houbolt was a mid-level NASA scientist in 1961 when he broke one of the cardinal rules of bureaucratic protocol and helped put a man on the moon.
He had a plan for the first lunar landing, but few of the higher-ups at NASA were buying it. So he went far outside the chain of command, leaping over the heads of supervisors, and made his plea directly to the associate chief of his agency.
His gamble worked.
Almost eight years later, on July 20, 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon — following the idea Houbolt had championed.
Houbolt, who retired from NASA as chief scientist at the Langley Research Center in 1985, died April 15 at 95 in Scarborough, Maine. The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, said a son-in-law, P. Tucker Withington.
Putting a man on the moon had been the object of humanity’s dreams for centuries and an issue of serious discussion at NASA since the agency was established in 1958. It gained new momentum when President John Kennedy declared in his 1961 inaugural address that the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
Even before Kennedy’s election, Houbolt had become known at NASA for his advocacy of what became known as a lunar-orbit rendezvous method of reaching the moon: sending a spacecraft into orbit around the moon, then detaching a smaller spacecraft from the mothership to make the lunar landing.
After a period on the lunar surface, the smaller craft would then blast off from the moon and reconnect with the orbiting mothership, which would then return to Earth. A primary advantage of this approach was that the moon landing could be achieved with a smaller spacecraft and thus would require less rocket fuel — and less money.
But the idea received scant support and some overt hostility among NASA scientists, including Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist who at NASA was director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
“No, that’s no good,” von Braun told him. Christopher Kraft, director of NASA’s manned flight operations, told Time magazine, “When some people first heard of Houbolt’s ideas they thought he was nuts.”
Most of the NASA scientists backed what was then known as the Nova plan, which was to build a giant space rocket to blast off from the Earth’s surface, land on the moon, and then blast off from the moon and land back on Earth.
In November 1961. Houbolt took what the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics described as a “bold step” of writing a nine-page private letter to NASA’s incoming associate administrator, Robert Seamans.
In that letter, Houbolt protested the exclusion of the lunar-orbit rendezvous concept from the moonshot considerations. He described himself as “a voice in the wilderness” and pointedly asked, “Do we want to go to the moon or not?”
“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?” he wrote. “I fully realize that contacting you in this manner is somewhat unorthodox, but the issues at stake are crucial enough to us all that an unusual course is warranted.”
Seamans ordered a thorough checkout of Houbolt’s ideas. By the spring of 1962, even von Braun was won over, and the lunar-orbit rendezvous became the route to the moon.
The son of Dutch-born farmers, John Cornelius Houbolt was born April 10, 1919, in Altoona, Iowa, and grew up in Joliet, Illinois.
He graduated in 1938 from Joliet Junior College and received a scholarship to study at the University of Illinois, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering in 1940 and 1942, respectively. He earned a doctorate in technical science at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in 1957.
Since childhood, he had been a gifted mathematician. He was always scribbling equations, his wife, Mary, once told a reporter. He wrote equations on grocery bags, envelopes, even on the sides of bathtubs while taking a bath.
He was an engineer with NASA and its predecessor agencies at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., from 1942 until 1963, then joined Aeronautical Research Associates of Princeton, N.J., as a senior executive. He returned to NASA as chief scientist at Langley in 1976.
In 2001 he moved with his family from Williamsburg, Virginia, to Scarborough. Survivors include his wife of 65 years, Mary Morris Houbolt of Scarborough; three daughters, Neil Withington of Plymouth, Massachusetts, Joanna Hayes of Saint Albans, Vermont, and Julie Winter of Morristown, New Jersey; a sister; and four grandchildren.
Without Houbolt, NASA said on its website, “the United States may still have landed men on the moon, but it probably would not have happened by the end of the 1960s as directed by Kennedy.”