July 18, 2019


Meet John Houbolt: He Figured Out How To Go To The Moon, But Few Were Listening (SCOTT NEUMAN, 7/18/19, NPR)

There was also a third way -- a dark horse candidate favored by a minority of engineers led by Houbolt at NASA's Langley Research Center. Lunar orbit rendezvous, or LOR, would require only one Saturn V and two smaller vehicles to go to the moon -- a mother ship to stay in lunar orbit, which came to be known as the command module, while a lightweight lunar module, designed solely to land and return from the lunar surface, made the descent.

The catch? Astronauts, circling the moon nearly a quarter of a million miles away from any possibility of rescue, would have to link up the two spaceships to get home.

To the NASA establishment, that sounded way too risky. Nearly all but Houbolt and his group of supporters at Langley dismissed it out of hand.

At the time, no one had ever done rendezvous or docking in space -- maneuvers that are considered the bread and butter of spaceflight today but that were daunting and untried concepts in the early 1960s.

"If rendezvous had to be part of Project Apollo, critics of LOR felt that it should be done only in Earth orbit," according to the NASA fact sheet. In case the maneuver was unsuccessful, the astronauts could easily return home. However, "if a rendezvous around the moon failed, the astronauts would be too far away to be saved. Nothing could be done," it said.

Houbolt believed the risks of LOR were manageable. And further, he was adamant that a rendezvous of two spacecraft in lunar orbit wasn't just one possible method for a moon mission, but the only one that had any chance of meeting Kennedy's nearly impossible deadline.

To Houbolt, it was a simple equation involving the need to save weight, time and money. Lunar orbit rendezvous accomplished all three. But despite the obvious advantages, Houbolt faced an uphill battle. "He got batted down by pretty much everybody," Launius says.

There was von Braun's opposition, but also vehement pushback from Faget, the Mercury capsule designer.

In one meeting attended by NASA Associate Administrator Robert Seamans, von Braun and Faget, Houbolt pitched LOR. After the presentation, Faget rose from his seat to denounce Houbolt's plan.

"His figures lie!" Faget proclaimed. Amid a stunned silence in the room, Faget added, "He doesn't know what he's talking about!"

The outsider gets a hearing

His idea for getting to the moon may have been roundabout, but Houbolt himself was direct. He was also an outsider among the group of engineers studying a moonshot.

"Houbolt was not part of the program, and that is really where a core issue comes into play," Launius says. "He went to his boss and his boss sort of shouted him down and said, 'What are you doing?' because he wasn't working in this area at all."

Frustrated with his inability to get anyone to listen, in November 1961, Houbolt wrote a letter to Seamans, essentially going straight to the top of the NASA hierarchy. The move was a breach of protocol that Houbolt acknowledged in the letter was "somewhat unorthodox." But, he insisted, "[the] issues at stake are crucial enough to us all that an unusual course is warranted."

"Do we want to go to the moon or not?" Houbolt asked rhetorically, challenging the administrator to act. "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?"

The letter got Seamans' attention.

"It was rather strident in the way it was written," the former NASA official recalled in a 2008 documentary. "My first reaction was, 'I'd like some way to get that son of a gun off my back.' "

In a reply to Houbolt, Seamans promised to put LOR into active consideration.

Months later, at a June 1962 meeting, von Braun unexpectedly reversed course and publicly announced that he was recommending lunar orbit rendezvous.

Despite their differences, Houbolt -- who left the space agency in 1963 -- was invited by von Braun to mission control in Houston to witness the historic Apollo 11 landing on July 20, 1969.

The BBC's Thirteen Minutes to the Moon podcast is terrific.

Posted by at July 18, 2019 12:14 PM