Enchanted Rendezvous: The Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous Concept


[221] There was a reluctance to believe that the rendezvous maneuver was an easy thing. In fact, to a layman, if you were to explain what you had to do to perform a rendezvous in space, he would say that sounds so difficult we'll never be able to do it this century.

- Clinton E. Brown, head, Langley Lunar Mission Steering Group on Trajectories and Guidance


I'm not so sure we ever thought of rendezvous as very complicated. It's an amazing thing. We thought that if our guys could work out the orbital mechanics and we gave the pilot the right controls and stuff, then he'd land it and make the rendezvous. We didn't think it was very complicated.

- Arthur W. Vogeley, head, Langley Guidance and Control Branch


On Thursday morning, 25 May 1961, in a speech to a joint session of Congress, President John F. Kennedy challenged the American people to rebound from their recent second-place finishes in the space race: "First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. No single space project ... will be more exciting, or more impressive ... or more important ... and none will be so difficult or expensive." "It will not be one man going to the Moon," the dynamic 43-year-old president told his countrymen, "it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.''1

[222] At first no one at Langley could quite believe it. If President Kennedy had in fact just dedicated the country to a manned lunar landing, he could not be serious about doing it in less than nine years. NASA had been studying the feasibility of various lunar missions for some time, but had never dreamed of a manned mission that included landing on and returning from the surface of the moon by the end of the 1960s. NASA was not exactly sure how such a lunar mission could be achieved, let alone in so little time.

Not even Bob Gilruth, the leader of the STG, was prepared for the sensational announcement. He heard the news in a NASA airplane somewhere over the Midwest on his way to a meeting in Tulsa. He knew that Kennedy planned to say something dramatic about the space program in his speech, and so he asked the pilot to patch it through on the radio. Looking out the window over the passing clouds, he had heard every incredible word. Only one word described Gilruth's feelings at that moment: "aghast." The first manned Mercury flight by Alan Shepard had taken place only three weeks before, on 5 May. NASA had made this one brief 15-minute suborbital flight, and suddenly the President was promising Americans the moon. The audacity of the goal was stunning.2 American astronauts would fly a quarter of a million miles, make a pinpoint landing on a familiar but yet so strange heavenly body, blast off, and return home safely after a voyage of several days through space, and do it all by the end of the decade. Only one thought was more daunting to Gilruth, and that was that he was one of the main people who would have to make it happen. Already the STG had its hands full preparing for another suborbital flight (Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom's, on 21 July) and for the first orbital flight sometime early in the next year (John Glenn's, on 20 February 1962). Gilruth himself, before the president's announcement, "had spent almost no time at all" on lunar studies, so demanding were the activities of Project Mercury.3

Only the project managers directly responsible for making Mercury a success felt burdened by the prospects of now having to fulfill the lunar commitment. Other planners and dreamers about space exploration within NASA were elated.

When they heard about Kennedy's announcement, Clinton E. Brown and his adventurous colleagues cheered, "Hooray, let's put on full speed ahead, and do what we can." To them, landing astronauts on the moon as quickly as possible was obviously the next step if the United States was going to win the space race. Furthermore, Brown and his little band of men-plus one other key Langley researcher, Dr. John C. Houbolt-were confident that they already knew the best way to accomplish the lunar goal.4


Brown's Lunar Exploration Working Group


After Sputnik, a small circle of Langley researchers had plunged into the dark depths of space science. "We were aeronautical engineers," remembers [223] William H. Michael, Jr., a member of Brown's division who had recently returned to Langley after a two year stint in the aircraft industry. "We knew how to navigate in the air, but we didn't know a thing about orbital mechanics, celestial trajectories, or interplanetary travel, so we had to teach ourselves the subjects." In the Langley Technical Library, Michael could find only one pertinent book, An Introduction to Celestial Mechanics, written in 1914 by British professor of astrophysics Forrest R. Moulton (someone Michael had never heard of).5 With this out-of-date text, Michael and a few associates taught themselves enough about the equations of celestial mechanics to grow confident in their computations. Before long, the novices had transformed themselves into experts and were using their slide rules and early electronic computers to calculate possible paths to the moon.

In anticipating the trajectories for lunar missions in the late 1950s, Brown, Michael, and the few others were leapfrogging over what most people considered to be "the logical next step" into space: an earth-orbiting space station. Little did they know that their mental gymnastics would set the direction of the U.S. space program for the next 30 years.

Following the wisdom of Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, Hermann Oberth, Guido von Pirquet, Wernher von Braun, and other spacefaring visionaries, most proponents of space travel believed that the first step humans would take into the universe would be a relatively timid one to some sort of space station in earth orbit. The station could serve as a research laboratory for unique experiments and valuable industrial enterprises, and from this outpost, human travelers could eventually venture into space using craft for trips to the moon, the planets, and beyond. Most NASA researchers believed that the space station was the perfect target project because it could focus NASA's space related studies as well as its plans for future space exploration.6

Clint Brown and associates felt differently: they thought that the space station step must be skipped. The politics of the space race, not the inspired prophecies of the earliest space pioneers, were dictating the terms of our space program. The Russians had already demonstrated that they had larger boosters than the United States. This meant that they had the capability of establishing a space station first. As Brown explains, "If we put all our efforts into putting a space station around the world, we'd probably find ourselves coming in second again." The "obvious answer" was that "you had to take a larger bite and decide what can really give us leadership in the space race." To him "that clearly seemed the possibility of going to the moon and landing there."7

Inside Brown's Theoretical Mechanics Division, the conviction that lunar studies should take precedence over space station studies grew. In early 1959, Langley's assistant director, Eugene Draley, agreed to form a Langley working group to study the problems of lunar exploration. Brown, the catalytic group leader, asked for the participation of six of Langley's most thoughtful analysts: David Adamson, Supersonic Aerodynamics Division;

[224] Paul R. Hill, PARD; John C. Houbolt, Dynamic Loads Division; Albert A. Schy, Stability Research Division; Samuel Katzoff, Full-Scale Research Division; and Bill Michael of his own Theoretical Mechanics Division. Leonard Roberts, a talented young mathematician from England, eventually joined the group. Brown assembled these researchers for the first time in late March 1959 and periodically into 1960. Besides advising Langley management on the establishment of lunar-related research programs, Brown's group also organized a course in space mechanics for interested employees. For many, this course provided their first real brush with relativity theory. The Brown study group even worked to disseminate information about the moon by holding public seminars led by experts from Langley and from the nearby universities. 8

Everything about this original lunar study group was done quietly and without much fuss. In those early days of NASA, the management of research was still flexible and did not always require formal research authorizations or approval from NASA headquarters in Washington. When Brown expressed his desire to work more on lunar exploration than on the space station, Draley simply told him, "Fine, go ahead." Henceforth, he and his lunar working group proceeded with their efforts to solve the problems of sending an American to the moon. Brown's group was doing what Langley researchers did best: exploring an interesting new idea and seeing how far they could go with it.

Langley researchers were not the only people in the United States thinking seriously about lunar missions. Officers in the air force, scientists in think tanks, professors at universities, and other engineers and researchers in and around NASA were all contemplating a journey to the moon. In February 1959, a month before the creation of Brown's Lunar Exploration Working Group at Langley, NASA headquarters had created a small "Working Group on Lunar and Planetary Surfaces Exploration" (evolving later into the "Science Committee on Lunar Exploration" ) chaired by Dr. Robert Jastrow, the head of NASA headquarters' new Theoretical Division. This group included such leaders in planetology and lunar science as Harold C. Urey, professor at large at the University of California at San Diego, several leading scientists from JPL in Pasadena, and a few from Langley. In their meetings Jastrow's group looked into the feasibility of both "rough" (later usually called "hard" ) and "soft" landings on the moon. In a rough landing, a probe would crash onto the surface and be destroyed, but only after an on-board camera had sent back dozens of valuable pictures to earth. In a soft landing, a spacecraft would actually land intact on the moon. Langley's Bill Michael sat in on one of the first meetings of the Jastrow Committee. In reaction to what he heard, Michael and others at Langley began developing ideas for photographic reconnaissance of the moon's surface from lunar orbit as well as for lunar impact studies.9 Houbolt, of Langley's Dynamic Loads Division, also attended some of these meetings to share his budding knowledge of the requirements for spacecraft rendezvous.


[225] Committees Reviewing Lunar Landing Modes

Date Formed





Feb. 1959


Working Group on Lunar and Planetary Surfaces Exploration


Mar. 1959


Lunar Exploration Working Group


Apr. 1959


Research Steering Committee on Manned Space Flight


Summer 1959


Manned Space Lab Group Subcommittee: Rendezvous



May 1960


Intercenter Review of Rendezvous Studies


May 1960


Lunar Mission Steering Group Subcommittee: Trajectories and Guidance Subcommittee: Rendezvous




Oct. 1960


Manned Lunar Landing Task Group (Low Committee)


May 1961


Ad Hoc Task Group for a Lunar Landing Study (Fleming Committee)


May 1961


Lundin Committee


June 1961


Ad Hoc Task Group for Study of Manned Lunar Landing by Rendezvous Techniques (Heaton Committee)


July 1961


NASA/DOD Large Launch Vehicle Planning.Group (Golovin Committee)


Dec. 1961


Manned Space Flight Management Council



[226] Two months later, in April 1959, NASA headquarters formed a Research Steering Committee on Manned Space Flight. Chaired by Harry J. Goett of NASA Goddard, this committee was to review man-in-space problems, recommend the missions to follow Project Mercury, and outline the research programs to support those missions.10

In its final report, which came at the end of 1959, the Goett Committee called for a manned lunar landing as the appropriate long-term goal of NASA's space program. Between that goal and the present Project Mercury, however, a major interim program designed to develop advanced orbital capabilities and a manned space station was needed. Before that program, to be named Gemini, took shape, however, basic priorities would change.

Langley's representative on the Goett Committee, Laurence K. Loftin, Jr., the technical assistant to Associate Director Thompson, agreed that the space station should be NASA's immediate goal. But two other members disagreed: the STG's Max Faget and George Low, NASA's director of spacecraft and flight missions in Washington. During meetings from May to December, they voiced what turned out to be the minority opinion that the moon should be NASA's next objective. George Low was particularly vocal in making the point. Not only did he want to go to the moon, Low also wanted to land on it, with men, and the sooner the better.11


Michael's Paper on a "Parking Orbit"


At Langley, members of Brown's lunar exploration group were studying ways of accomplishing Low's dream. One of these studies, by Bill Michael, examined the benefits of "parking" the earth-return propulsion portion of a spacecraft in orbit around the moon during a landing mission.

The spark for Michael's interest in what came to be called a "parking orbit," a spacecraft in a waiting orbit around the moon or some other celestial body, was calculations he had made to see whether any advantage could be gained in a lunar mission from additional "staging." First explained by Tsarist Russia's space visionary Tsiolkovskii in the late 1800s, staging was the proven technological concept by which a self-propelled, staged-rocket vehicle (Tsiolkovskii called it a rocket "train" ) could ascend to greater heights a8 its stages expended their fuel and separated.

In a lunar landing mission, Michael speculated, flying a big rocket ship directly from the earth to the moon would be impractical. (Jules Verne's popular book and other science fiction fantasies had pictured this method for a lunar landing.) Too much unnecessary weight would have to be transported to the moon's surface. How much wiser it would be to make "an intermediate step" and place the vehicle in lunar orbit where much of the total weight remained behind including the structure of the interplanetary spacecraft, its heavy fuel load for leaving lunar orbit and returning home, and its massive heat shield necessary for a safe reentry into the earth's....



Clinton E. Brown, William H. Michael, Jr., and Arthur Vogeley, 1989 .

At a colloquium held at Langley on 20 July 1989 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first Iunar landing, William H. Michael, Jr., (center) reviews the evolution of his parking orbit concept with Clinton E. Brown (right), head of the Lunar Exploration Working Group and Arthur Vogeley left), mastermind of Langley's rendezvous and docking simulators of the 1960s. L-59-8683


...atmosphere. "It's very expensive to accelerate any type of mass to high velocity," Michael thought. "Any time you do not have to do that, you save a lot of fuel and thus a lot of weight.''12

Michael wrote his calculations in 1960 in a never-to be published paper, "Weight Advantages of Use of Parking Orbit for Lunar Soft Landing Mission." In the paper, Michael identified the most basic advantage of what came to be known as lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR). His results implied that LOR could save NASA an impressive 50 percent or more of the total mission weight. Figuring the numbers did not require any difficult or sophisticated calculations. 13 Nor did it require any knowledge of the writings of Russian rocket theoretician Yuri Kondratyuk and British scientist and Interplanetary Society member H. E. Ross, both of whom had expressed the fundamentals of the LOR concept years earlier (Kondratyuk in 1916, and Ross in 1948).14 Neither Michael nor anyone else at Langley at this point, so they have always maintained, had any knowledge of those precursors.

They also knew nothing about competition from contemporaries; however, they soon would. The same morning that Michael first showed his [228] rough parking-orbit calculations to Clint Brown, a team led by Thomas E. Dolan from Vought Astronautics, a division of the Chance Vought Corporation in Dallas, gave a briefing at Langley. The briefing concerned Vought's ongoing company-funded, confidential study of problems related to Manned Lunar Landing and Return (MALLAR) and specifically its plans for a manned spaceflight simulator and its possible application for research under contract to NASA.15

During the briefing, Dolan's staff mentioned an idea for reaching the moon. Although the Vought representatives focused their analysis on the many benefits of what they called a "modular spacecraft" one in which several parts, including a lunar landing module, were designed for certain tasks-Brown and Michael understood that Vought was advertising the essentials of the LOR concept. "They got up there and they had the whole thing laid out," Brown remembers. "They had scooped us" with their idea of "designing a spacecraft so that you can throw away parts of it as you go along." For the next several days, Michael walked around "with his face hanging down to the floor." 16

Nevertheless, the chagrined Langley engineer decided to write a brief paper because he was confident that he had come up with his idea independently. Furthermore, the word around Langley later came to be that Dolan had developed the idea of using a detachable lunar landing module for the landing operation after an earlier visit to Langley when PARD engineers familiar with Michael's embryonic idea had suggested a parking orbit to him. This explanation may simply be "sour grapes." On the other hand, Dolan had been visiting Langley in late 1959 and early 1960, and Michael does remember having already mentioned his idea to a few people at the center, "so it shouldn't have been any surprise to anybody here at Langley that such a possibility existed."17 The truth about the origin of Dolan's idea will probably never be known.

Michael's paper, at least in retrospect, had some significant limitations. It was only two pages long and presented little analysis. Its charts were difficult to follow and interpret. He did not mention "earth-escape weights," though an informed reader could infer such numbers. Perhaps most importantly, the paper did not explicitly mention either the need for a separate lunar lander or the additional weight savings derived from using one and discarding it before the return trip home. A reader would already have to be familiar with the subject even to recognize, let alone fully fathom, what was being implied. Michael's paper was hardly a fully developed articulation of a lunar landing mission using LOR. Nonetheless, it made a fundamentally important contribution: it made rendezvous the central theme for Langley researchers contemplating lunar missions. As his paper concluded, the chief problems in a lunar landing mission were the "complications involved in requiring a rendezvous with the components left in the parking orbit." 18

Although disappointed by the news that Vought had scooped them with the idea of LOR, the Langley researchers were hardly demoralized.



John D. Bird, 1962.


Three days before President Kennedy's lunar commitment, John D. Bird, "Jaybird" (left), captured Langley's enthusiasm for a moonshot in his sketch "TO THE MOON WITH C-1's OR BUST" (below). In essence, his plan called for a mission via earth-orbit rendezvous (EOR) requiring the launch of 10 C-1 rockets.



Sketch <<to the moon with c-l 's or bust>>.

Three days before President Kennedy's lunar commitment, John D. Bird, "Jaybird" (left), captured Langley's enthusiasm for a moonshot in his sketch "TO THE MOON WITH C-1's OR BUST" (below). In essence, his plan called for a mission via earth-orbit rendezvous (EOR) requiring the launch of 10 C-1 rockets.


[230] Researchers in and around Brown's division quickly began making lunar and planetary mission feasibility studies of their own. John P. Gapcynski, for example, considered factors involved in the departure of a vehicle from a circular orbit around the earth. Wilbur L. Mayo calculated energy and mass requirements for missions to the moon and even to Mars. Robert H. Tolson studied the effects on lunar trajectories of such geometrical constraints as the eccentricity of the moon's orbit and the oblate shape of the earth, and also looked into the influence of the solar gravitational field. John D. Bird, "Jaybird," who worked across the hall from Michael, began designing "lunar bugs," "lunar schooners," and other types of small excursion modules that could go down to the surface of the moon from a "mother ship." Jaybird became a particularly outspoken advocate of LOR. When a skeptical visitor to Langley offered, with a chuckle, that LOR was "like putting a guy in an airplane without a parachute and having him make a midair transfer," Bird set the visitor straight. "No,' he corrected, "it's like having a big ship moored in the harbor while a little rowboat leaves it, goes ashore, and comes back again." 19


The Rendezvous Committees


A feeling was growing within NASA in late 1959 and early 1960 that rendezvous in space was going to be a vital maneuver no matter what NASA chose as the follow-on mission to Project Mercury. If the next step was a space station, a craft must meet and dock with that station and then leave it; if the next step was a lunar mission, that, too, would require some sort of rendezvous either in lunar orbit, as Michael's study suggested, or in earth orbit, where a lunar-bound spacecraft might be assembled or at least fueled. Even if neither of these projects was adopted communications and military "spy" satellites would require inspection and repair, thus necessitating rendezvous maneuvers. Rendezvous would be a central element of all future flight endeavors whatever NASA decided.

By late summer 1959, Langley's senior staff was ready to proceed with detailed studies of how best to perform rendezvous maneuvers in space. Two rendezvous study committees eventually were formed, both chaired by Dr. John C. Houbolt, the assistant chief of Langley's Dynamic Loads Division.

Houbolt was an aircraft structures expert who had begun work at Langley in 1942 with a B.S. and M.S. in civil engineering from the University of Illinois. In contrast to most Langley researchers, he had spent a significant amount of time conducting research abroad. He had been an exchange research scientist at the British Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, England, in 1949, and in 1958, Houbolt had only recently returned from a year at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, where his dissertation on the heat-related aeroelastic problems of aircraft structures in high-speed flight had earned him a Ph.D.20

[231] Upon returning from his graduate work in Switzerland, Houbolt had found himself becoming more curious about spaceflight as were other Langley researchers. On his own, largely independent of the conversations taking place within Brown's group, Houbolt learned the fundamentals of space navigation. "I racked down and went through the whole analysis of orbital mechanics so I could understand it." From his own preliminary studies of trajectories, he saw the vital importance of rendezvous and began to recognize and evaluate the basic problems associated with it. During the STG's training of the Mercury astronauts at Langley, Houbolt taught them their course on space navigation. 21

Houbolt focused on one special problem related to rendezvous-the timing of the launch. NASA could not launch a mission at just any time and be assured of effecting a rendezvous with an orbiting spacecraft. In order to visualize the problem, Houbolt built a gadget with a globe for the earth and a small ball on the end of a short piece of coat hanger for the satellite. He connected it all to a variable-ratio gearbox. The gadget simulated a satellite at different altitudes and in different orbital planes. With this little machine Houbolt could figure the time that satellites would take at varying altitudes to orbit the revolving earth. From his considerations of orbital mechanics, Houbolt found that a change in orbital plane at 25,000 feet per second without the help of aerodynamic lift would require such an enormous amount of energy that it could not be made. With this simple but ingenious model, Houbolt saw how long NASA might have to wait-a period of many days-in order to launch a rendezvous mission from Cape Canaveral. However, he also found a way to circumvent the problem: "if the orbital plane of the satellite could be made just one or two degrees larger than the latitude of the launch site," the launch "window" could be extended to four hours every day. Thus, he began to understand how NASA could avoid the long waiting periods. 22

The word quickly spread through Langley that Houbolt, the aircraft structures specialist, was now "the rendezvous man." He even had a "license to rendezvous" issued to him by the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit think tank (affiliated with Douglas Aircraft) in southern California. The Rand Corporation, which had an interest in space rendezvous and a space rendezvous simulator, presented Houbolt with this "license" in November 1959 after he successfully linked two craft on the Douglas rendezvous simulator. 23 Thus, when NASA Langley created its steering groups to study the problems of orbital space stations and lunar exploration missions, Houbolt naturally was asked to provide the input about rendezvous.

The first of Houbolt's rendezvous committees was linked to Langley's Manned Space Laboratory Group. Headed by the Full-Scale Research Division's Mark R. Nichols, an aerodynamics specialist who was reluctant to accept the assignment, this group was formed late in the summer of 1959. It was similar to Brown's interdivisional Lunar Exploration Working Group, except that it was larger and had committees of its own. One of [232] them, Houbolt's committee, was to look into the matter of rendezvous as it pertained to earth-orbit operations. This it did in a "loosely organized and largely unscheduled" way during the first months of 1960. Serving on the committee were John M. Eggleston, Arthur W. Vogeley, Max C. Kurbjun, and W. Hewitt Phillips of the Aero-Space Mechanics Division; John A. Dodgen and William Mace of IRD; and John Bird and Clint Brown of the Theoretical Mechanics Division.24 The overlapping memberships and responsibilities of the committees and study groups created during this busy and chaotic period have caused much confusion in the historical record about where the concept of LOR first arose at Langley and about who deserves the credit.

At one of the early meetings of the Manned Space Laboratory Group on 18 September 1959, Houbolt made a long statement on the rendezvous problem. In this statement, one of the first made on this subject anywhere inside NASA, Houbolt insisted that his committee be allowed to study rendezvous "in the broadest terms" possible because, as he argued correctly, the technique was certain to play a major role in almost any advanced space mission NASA might initiate.25 Three months later, in December 1959, Houbolt appeared with other leading members of the Manned Space Laboratory Group before a meeting of the Goett Committee held at Langley. He urged the adoption of a rendezvous-satellite experiment-an experiment, in essence, similar to NASA's later Project Gemini-which could "define and solve the problems more clearly." The Goett Committee members, the majority of whom were still narrowly focusing on a space station and a circumlunar mission, showed little interest in Houbolt's experiment idea.26

Representatives from Goddard, Marshall, and JPL met at Langley on 16-17 May 1960 for an intercenter review of NASA's current rendezvous studies. At this meeting, Houbolt gave the principal Langley presentation based on a paper he had just delivered at the National Aeronautical Meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers in New York City, 5-8 April. All representatives were in "complete agreement" that rendezvous was "an important problem area" that opened "many operational possibilities" and that warranted "significant study." The strength of Houbolt's presentation demonstrated that of all the NASA centers, Langley was "expending the greatest effort on rendezvous." Eleven studies were under way at the center compared with three at Ames and two each at Lewis and the Flight Research Center. Marshall had an active interest in rendezvous but only in connection with advanced Saturn missions. With their "leanings toward orbital operations," von Braun's people had done little work specifically on rendezvous and were not prepared to talk about what little they had done.27

One week after the intercenter review, a second rendezvous committee met for the first time. It was part of a Lunar Mission Steering Group created by Director Floyd Thompson. Chairing this group was hypersonics specialist John V. Becker, chief of the Aero Physics Division.28 Much larger and more formal than Brown's original little band of lunar enthusiasts, the [233] group chaired by Becker incorporated the Brown group, with the dynamic Brown himself serving as chairman of the new group's subcommittee on trajectories and guidance. Five other subcommittees were quickly organized: Howard B. Edwards of IRD chaired an instrumentation and communications committee; Richard R. Heldenfels of the Structures Research Division headed a committee on structures and materials; Paul R. Hill of the Aero Space Mechanics Division was in charge of a committee on propulsion, flight testing, and dynamic loads; Eugene S. Love, Becker's assistant chief of the Aero Physics Division, led a committee on reentry aerodynamics, heating, configuration, and aeromedical issues; and John C. Houbolt headed the rendezvous committee. Serving with Houbolt were Wilford E. Silvertson, Jr., of IRD and John Bird and John Eggleston, who were also members of his other rendezvous committee for the Manned Space Lab Group.

Becker's Lunar Mission Steering Group was to take a "very broad look at all possible ways of accomplishing the lunar mission." At the time NASA envisioned a circumlunar rather than a landing mission. (By late summer 1960, Lowell E. Hasel, secretary of Becker's study group, was referring to it in his minutes as the "LRC Circumlunar Mission Steering Group.") More specifically, the Becker group was to decide whether it approved of the general guidelines for lunar missions as established by the STG in meetings a month earlier, in April 1960.29 In the next six months, Becker's group met six times, sent representatives to NASA headquarters and Marshall Space Flight Center for consultation and presentation of preliminary analyses, and generally educated itself in the relevant technical areas. Its exploratory experimental data eventually appeared in 12 Langley papers presented at the first NASA/Industry Apollo Technical Conference held in Washington from 18-20 July 1961. Long before that time, however, Langley's Lunar Mission Steering Group discontinued its activities. In mid-November 1960, when the STG developed its formal Apollo Technical Liaison Plan, which organized specialists in each problem area from every NASA center, the group was no longer needed and simply stopped meeting.30


Houbolt Launches His First Crusade


In his paper presented before the Society of Automotive Engineers in April 1960, Houbolt had focused on "the problem of rendezvous in space, involving, for example, the ascent of a satellite or space ferry as to make a soft contact with another satellite or space station already in orbit." His analysis of soft rendezvous could have applied to a lunar mission, but Houbolt did not specifically refer to that possibility.31

He had been seriously studying it, as revealed in the minutes of a meeting of Langley's Manned Space Laboratory Group held on 5 February 1960. On that occasion Houbolt discussed the general requirements of a "soft landing device" in a lunar mission involving LOR. He did so in spite of the fact that....


[234] Houbolt's Early Crusades




Presentation Audience


Sept. 1959


Manned Space Lab Group

Dec. 1959


Goett Committee

Feb. 1960


Manned Space Lab Group

Apr. 1960

New York

Society of Automotive Engineers

Spring 1960


Robert Piland and STG members (informal)

Spring 1960


William Mrazek

May 1960


Intercenter Review

Sept. 1960


Seamans (informal)

Nov. 1960


Air Force Scientific Advisory Board

Dec. 1960


STG leaders

Dec. 1960


Headquarters staff including Glennan, von Braun, Seamans, and Faget


....this particular rendezvous committee was supposed to be focusing more narrowly on a rendezvous with an earth-orbiting space station.32

From this point on, Houbolt began to advertise LOR in meetings and conversations. In the spring of 1960, he talked about LOR with Robert O. Piland and other members of the STG at Langley. During the same period, Houbolt mentioned LOR to William A. Mrazek, director of the Structures and Mechanics Division at Marshall. Houbolt had been helping Mrazek to evaluate the S-IV stage (consisting of four uprated Centaur engines) of the Saturn rocket.33

In the summer of 1960, while making back-of-the-envelope calculations to confirm the savings in rocket-boosting power gained by the LOR approach, Houbolt experienced a powerful technological epiphany. Three years later, in a 1963 article, he described what happened: "Almost simultaneously, it became clear that lunar-orbit rendezvous offered a chain reaction simplification on all 'back effects': development, testing, manufacturing, erection, count-down, flight operations, etc." In this moment of revelation, Houbolt made an ardent resolve: "I vowed to dedicate myself to the task." From [235] that instant until NASA's selection of the mission mode for Project Apollo in July 1962, he tirelessly crusaded for the LOR concept.34

On 1 September 1960. Dr. Robert C. Seamans, who had a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering and was a former member of an NACA technical subcommittee, became NASA's new associate director. One of his first official duties was visiting all the agency's field centers for orientations about their programs and introductions to their personnel. During his visit to Langley, one of the many people he encountered was an excited John Houbolt, who seized the moment to say something privately about the advantages of LOR. He told the associate administrator, "We ought to be thinking about using LOR in our way of going to the moon."35

Bob Seamans, in his previous job as chief engineer for RCA's Missile and Electronics Division in Massachusetts, had been involved in an air force study known as Project Saint-an acronym for satellite interceptor. This "quiet but far-reaching" classified military project involved the interception of satellites in earth orbit. Project Saint predisposed Seamans to entertain ideas about rendezvous techniques and maneuvers. Houbolt explained to him that LOR would work even if less weight than that of the entire spacecraft was left in a parking orbit. If only the weight of the spacecraft's heat shield was parked, NASA could realize some significant savings. Impressed with the importance of leaving weight in orbit, and equally impressed with Houbolt's zeal, Seamans invited the impassioned Langley researcher to present his ideas formally before his staff in Washington.36

Before that presentation, however, Houbolt gave two other briefings on rendezvous: the first, in November 1960, to the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board at the Pentagon; the second, on 10 December, to leading members of the STG including Paul Purser, Robert Piland, Owen Maynard, Caldwell Johnson, James Chamberlin, and Max Faget. (Gilruth was not present.) In both talks, Houbolt spoke about all the possible uses of rendezvous. For LOR, the uses included a manned lunar landing, and for earth-orbit rendezvous (EOR) they included assembly of orbital units, personnel transfer to a space station, proper placement of special purpose satellites, and inspection and interception of satellites. Houbolt stressed that rendezvous would be both inherently useful and technically feasible in many space missions. Historians have missed this key point about Houbolt: he was advocating rendezvous generally, not just LOR.

If humans were going to land on the moon using existing rocket boosters, or even the boosters that were then on the drawing boards, a combination of EOR and LOR would be required. "We would put up a component with a first booster; we would put up another component with another booster; then we would rendezvous the two of them in earth orbit. Then we would go to the moon with this booster system and perform the lunar-orbit rendezvous with the remaining spacecraft. The whole reason for doing it this way would be because the boosters were still too small."

[236] Although he presented several rendezvous concepts, Houbolt championed LOR. With charts showing a soft manned lunar landing accomplished both with the Saturn-class rockets then in development and with existing launch vehicles such as Atlas or Langley's Scout, Houbolt concluded his lecture by emphasizing the "great advantage" of LOR. In a lunar landing mission, the earth-boost payload would be reduced two to two-and-a-half times. "I pointed out over and over again" that if these boosters could be made bigger, then NASA "could dispense with the earth-orbit rendezvous portion and do it solely by lunar-orbit rendezvous."37

Houbolt recalls that neither the Scientific Advisory Board nor the STG seemed overly interested; however, they did not seem overly hostile. He was to experience this passive reaction often in the coming months. But not all the reactions were so passive. Some of them, from intelligent and influential people inside the space program, were loud, harshly worded, and negative.

On 14 December 1960, Houbolt traveled to Washington with a group of Langley colleagues to give the staff at NASA headquarters the briefing he had promised Bob Seamans three months earlier. All NASA's important people were in the audience, including Keith Glennan, Seamans, Wernher von Braun, and the leadership of the STG. For 15 minutes, Houbolt moved carefully through his charts and analysis. He concluded, as he had done in the earlier briefings, with an enthusiastic statement about LOR's weight savings-a reduction of earth payload by a "whopping" two to two-and-a-half times.

When he finished, a small man with a receding hairline and a bow tie jumped up from the audience. Houbolt knew all too well who he was: the hot-blooded Max Faget, his longtime Langley associate and present member of the STG. "His figures lie." Faget accused. "He doesn't know what he's talking about." Even in a bull session at Langley, Faget's fiery accusation would have been upsetting. But "in an open meeting, in front of Houbolt's peers and supervisors," it was "a brutal thing for one Langley engineer to say to another."38 Faget had not bothered to voice these doubts four days earlier during the more private STG management briefing at Langley, when Houbolt and the others who were to give talks at headquarters had rehearsed their presentations. Faget continued his vocal objections in the hallway after the headquarters briefing was over. Houbolt tried to stay calm, but clearly he was agitated. He answered the charge simply by telling Faget that he "ought to look at the study before [making] a pronouncement like that."39 It was an "ought to" that Houbolt would be passing on to many LOR skeptics before it was all over.

Curiously, earlier at the same NASA headquarters meeting, Clint Brown had made a presentation based on a study he had done with Ralph W. Stone, Jr., of the Theoretical Mechanics Division. Brown had explained a general operational concept for an LOR plan for a manned lunar mission. Brown's basic idea was to develop an early launch capability by combining several existing rocket boosters, specifically the Atlas, Centaur, and Scout.

[237] He also illustrated the advantage of rendezvous for weight reduction over direct ascent. But oddly, Brown's talk-unlike Houbolt's-did not provoke a strong negative reaction.40 Perhaps this was because Houbolt gave a more explicit analysis of the advantages of LOR over the direct approach, or perhaps it was because Brown had given his presentation first and Faget needed to build up some steam, or perhaps it was personal, with Faget simply liking Brown better than he liked Houbolt.


The Feelings Against LOR


The basic premise of the LOR concept that NASA would eventually develop into Project Apollo was to fire an assembly of three spacecraft into earth orbit on top of a single powerful (three-stage) rocket, the Saturn V. This 50,000-pound-plus assembly would include a mother ship or command module (CM); a service module (SM) containing the fuel cells, attitude control system, and main propulsion system; and a small lunar lander or excursion module. Once in earth orbit, the last stage of the Saturn rocket would fire and expend itself, thus boosting the Apollo spacecraft with its crew of three astronauts into its trajectory to the moon. Braking into lunar orbit via the small rockets aboard the service module, two members would don space suits and climb into the lunar excursion module (LEM), detach it from the mother ship, and pilot it to the lunar surface. The third crew member would remain in the CM, maintaining a lonely but busy vigil in lunar orbit. If all went well, the top half or ascent stage of the LEM would rocket back up, using the ascent engine provided, and redock with the CM. What remained of the lander would then be discarded to the vast void of space or crashed on the moon as was done in later Apollo missions for seismic experiments-and the three astronauts in their command ship would head for home.*

Knowing what we know now, that is, that the United States would land Americans on the moon and return them safely before the end of the decade using LOR, the strength of feeling against the concept in the early 1960s is hard to imagine. In retrospect, we know that LOR enjoyed- as Brown, Michael, Dolan, and especially John Houbolt had said-several advantages over its competitors. It required less fuel, only half the payload, and somewhat less new technology; it did not require a monstrous rocket such as the proposed Nova for a direct flight; and it called for only one launch from earth, whereas one of LOR's chief competitors, EOR, required at least two. Only the small lightweight LEM, not the entire spacecraft, would have to land on the moon. This was perhaps LOR's major advantage. Because [238] the lander was to be discarded after use and would not be needed to return to earth, NASA could customize the design of the LEM for maneuvering flight in the lunar environment and for a soft lunar landing. In fact, the beauty of LOR was that NASA could tailor all the modules of the Apollo spacecraft independently without those tailorings having to compromise each other. One spacecraft unit to do three jobs would have forced some major concessions, but three units to do three jobs was another plus for LOR that no one at NASA, finally, could overlook.

In the early 1960s, these advantages were theoretical, but the fear that American astronauts might be left in an orbiting coffin some 240,000 miles from home was quite real. If rendezvous had to be part of the lunar mission, many people felt it should be attempted only in earth orbit. If rendezvous failed there, the threatened astronauts could be brought home simply by allowing the orbit of their spacecraft to deteriorate. If a rendezvous around the moon failed, the astronauts would be too far away to be saved. Nothing could be done. The specter of dead astronauts sailing around the moon haunted those responsible for the Apollo program. This anxiety made objective evaluation of LOR by NASA unusually difficult.

John Houbolt understood NASA's fears, but he recognized that all the alternative schemes had serious pitfalls and dreadful possibilities of their own. He was certain that all the other options would be more perilous and did not really offer rescue possibilities. The LOR concept, in contrast, did offer the chance of a rescue if two small landing modules, rather than one, were included. One lander could be held in reserve with the orbiting mother ship to go down to the lunar surface if the number one lander encountered serious trouble. Or, in the case of an accident inside the command-service module, one attached LEM could serve as a type of "lifeboat."** Houbolt just could not accept the charge that LOR was inherently more dangerous, but neither could he easily turn that charge aside.

The intellectual and emotional climate in which NASA would have to make perhaps the most fundamental decision in its history was amazingly tempestuous. The psychological obstacle to LOR's progress made the entire year of 1961 and the first seven months of 1962 the most hectic and challenging period of John Houbolt's life.41

On 5 January 1961, Houbolt spoke again on rendezvous during the first afternoon session of a historic two-day Space Exploration Program Council (SEPC) in Washington. This council had been created by NASA for "smoothing out technical and managerial problems at the highest level." Chaired by the associate administrator, this council meeting-the first that [239] Seamans presided over-included, as always, all program office heads at headquarters, the directors of all NASA field centers, and their invited guests and speakers. The SEPC had been meeting quarterly since early 1960, but this first meeting of 1961 was by far the most historic to date; it was the first meeting inside NASA to feature an agencywide discussion of a manned lunar landing. 42

At the end of the first day of this meeting, everyone agreed that the mission mode for a manned lunar landing by NASA could be reduced to three options: direct ascent, which was still the front-runner; EOR, which was gaining ground quickly; and LOR, the dark horse on which only the most capricious gamblers in NASA would have ventured a bet.

One speaker had presented each option. First, Marshall's impressive rocket pioneer from Germany, Wernher von Braun, reviewed NASA's launch vehicle program, with an eye to the advantages of EOR. Von Braun explained how two pieces of hardware could be launched into space independently using advanced Saturn rockets then under development; how the two pieces could rendezvous and dock in earth orbit; how a lunar mission vehicle could be assembled, fueled, and detached from the joined modules; and how that augmented ship could proceed directly to the surface of the moon and after exploring, return to earth. The clearest immediate advantage of EOR, as von Braun pointed out, was that it required a pair of less powerful rockets that were already nearing the end of their development. Two of his early Saturns would do the job. The biggest pitfall of EOR, as with direct ascent, was that no one knew how the spacecraft would actually make its landing. On the details of that essential maneuver, von Braun said nothing other than to admit that more serious study would have to be done very quickly.43

Next, Melvyn Savage of the Office of Launch Vehicle Programs at NASA headquarters explained direct ascent. A massive rocket roughly the size of a battleship would be fired directly to the moon, land, and blast off for home directly from the lunar surface. The trip required one brute of a booster vehicle, the proposed 12-million-pound thrust Nova rocket.

Late in the afternoon, Houbolt came to the podium to discuss rendezvous and highlight the unappreciated strengths of his dark-horse candidate. To him the advantages of LOR and the disadvantages of the other two options were obvious. Any single rocket such as Nova that had to carry and lift all the fuel necessary for leaving the earth's gravity, braking against the moon's gravity as well as leaving it, and braking against the earth's gravity was clearly not the most practical choice especially if the mission was to be accomplished in the near future. The development of a rocket that mammoth would take too long, and the expense would be enormous. In Houbolt's opinion, EOR was a more reasonable choice than direct ascent but not as sensible as LOR. After the lunar-bound spacecraft left its rendezvous Station around the earth, the rest of an EOR mission would be accomplished in exactly the same way as direct ascent. NASA's crew of astronauts would.....


[240] Houbolt's Later Crusades



Presentation Audience


Jan. 1961


Space Exploration Program Council Meeting

Jan. 1961


STG members

Jan. 1961


Pearson (Low Committee)

Jan. 1961


NASA Headquarters staff

Apr. 1961



May 1961


Letter to Seamans (NASA HQ)

June 1961


Lundin Committee

June 1961


International Space Flight Symposium

July 1961


Rehearsal with STG

July 1961

Washington, D.C.

NASA/Industry Apollo Technical Conference

Aug. 1961


Golovin Committee

Aug. 1961



Nov. 1961


Letter to Seamans (NASA HQ)

Jan. 1962


Shea and STG

Jan. 1962

MSC, Houston

Manned Spacecraft Center personnel

Feb. 1962


Manned Space Flight Management Council

Apr. 1962


Report and papers sent to von Braun (MSFC)


....have to land an incredibly heavy and large vehicle on the surface of the moon. The business of backing such a large stack of machinery down onto the moon and "eyeballing" a pinpoint soft landing on what at the time was still a virtually unknown lunar surface would be incredibly tricky and dangerous. Those few NASA researchers who had been thinking about the terrors of landing such a behemoth (and getting the astronauts down from [241] the top of it using some little inside elevator!) knew that no satisfactory answers to these problems were on the horizon.44

Other talks were given that day, including an introduction by George Low, chair of NASA headquarters Manned Lunar Landing Task Group (formed in October 1960), and a technical talk by Houbolt's nemesis Max Faget outlining the hardware and booster requirements for several possible types of lunar missions. Everyone walked away from the meeting understanding that, if the United States was someday to reach the moon, NASA would have to choose a plan soon.45 At this point, the odds were excellent that the choice would be direct ascent, which seemed simplest in concept. Coming in second, if a vote had been taken that day, would have been EOR. LOR, to many NASA officials present, was an option almost unworthy of mention.


The Early Skepticism of the STG


In the early months of 1961, the STG was preoccupied with the first manned Mercury flight and the hope soon to be crushed by Vostok 1- that an American astronaut would be the first human in space. When any of its members had a rare moment to consider rendezvous, they were typically thinking about it "as one of several classes of missions around which a Mercury program follow-on might be built."46

At Langley on 10 January 1961, five days after the meeting of the SEPC, Houbolt went with three members of the Theoretical Mechanics Division- the division chief Clint Brown, Ralph Stone, and Manuel J. "Jack" Queijo-to an informal meeting at the center with three members of the STG's Flight Systems Division-H. Kurt Strass, Owen E. Maynard, and Robert L. O'Neal. Langley Associate Director Charles Donlan, Gilruth's former chief assistant, also attended. At this meeting Houbolt, Brown, and the others tried to persuade representatives from the STG that a rendezvous experiment belonged in the Apollo program and that LOR was the way to go if any plans for a manned lunar landing were to be made.47

They were not persuaded. Although the STG engineers received the analysis more politely than had cohort Max Faget the month earlier, all four men admitted quite frankly that the claims about the weight savings were "too optimistic." Owen Maynard remembers that he and his colleagues initially viewed the LOR concept as "the product of pure theorists' deliberations with little practicality." In essence, they agreed with Faget's charge, though they did not come out and say it, that Houbolt's figures did "lie." The STG engineers believed that in advertising the earthweight savings of LOR and the reduction in the size of the booster needed for the lunar mission, Houbolt and the others were failing to factor in, or they were at least greatly underestimating, the significant extra complexity, and thus added weight, of the systems and subsystems that LOR's modular spacecraft would require.48

[242] This criticism was central to the early skepticism toward the LOR concept both inside and outside the STG. Even Marshall's Wernher von Braun initially shared the sentiment: "John Houbolt argued that if you could leave part of your ship in orbit and don't soft land all of it on the moon and fly it out of the gravitational field of the moon again, you can save takeoff weight on earth." "That's pretty basic," von Braun recalled later in an oral history. "But if the price you pay for that capability means that you have to have one extra crew compartment, pressurized, and two additional guidance systems, and the electrical supply for all that gear, and you add up all this, will you still be on the plus side of your trade-off?" Until the analysis was done (and some former NASA engineers still argue today that "this trade-off has never been realistically evaluated"), no one could be sure. Many NASA people suspected that LOR would prove far too complicated. "The critics in the early debate murdered Houbolt," von Braun remembered sympathetically.49

Houbolt recalls this January 1961 meeting with the men from the STG as a "friendly, scientific discussion." He, Brown, and the others did what they could to counter the argument that the weight of a modular spacecraft would prove excessive. Using an argument taken from automobile marketing, they stated that the lunar spacecraft would not necessarily have to be "plush"; an "economy" or even "budget" model might be able to do the job. Houbolt offered as an example one of John Bird's lunar bugs, "a stripped-down, 2,500-pound version in which an astronaut descended on an open platform,"50 but the STG engineers did not take the budget model idea seriously. In answer to the charge that a complicated modular spacecraft would inevitably grow much heavier than the LOR advocates had been estimating, Houbolt retaliated with the argument that the estimated weight of a direct-ascent spacecraft would no doubt increase during development, making it an even less competitive option in comparison with rendezvous.

But in the end, the substantive differences between the two groups of engineers went out the window. All Houbolt could say to the STG representatives was "you don't know what you're talking about," and all they could say to him was the same. "It wasn't a fight in the violent sense," reassures Houbolt. "It was just differences in scientific opinion about it "51

Whether the skeptical response to that day's arguments in favor of LOR was indicative of general STG sentiment in early 1961 has been a matter of some serious behind-the-scenes debate among the NASA participants. Houbolt has argued that the STG consistently opposed LOR and had to be convinced from the outside, by Houbolt himself, after repeated urgings, that it was the best mission mode for a lunar landing. Leading members of the STG, notably Gilruth and Faget, have argued that was not really the case. They say that the STG was too busy preparing for the Mercury flights to think seriously about lunar studies; they began considering such missions only after Kennedy's commitment. Gilruth recalls that when Houbolt first approached him "with some ideas about rendezvousing Mercury capsules in earth orbit" as "an exercise in space technology," he did in fact react.....



Early version of a lunar excursion module.

Looking like a birdie for a badminton game, this early lunar excursion model was proposed by Langley researchers in the spring of 1961 for the suggested Project MALLIR (Manned Lunar Landing Involving Rendezvous). L-61-6790


....negatively. It was a "diversion from our specified mission" according to Gilruth and, therefore, not something about which he as the head of Project Mercury then had any time on which to reflect.52

According to Gilruth, he did not know of Houbolt's interest in LOR until early 1961. By that time, NASA had begun studying the requirements of a manned lunar landing through such committees as the Manned Lunar Landing Task Group chaired by George Low (the Low Committee). The STG, although still overwhelmed with work, did its best to follow suit. When it did begin serious consideration of a lunar program, especially of landing men on the moon, LOR gained "early acceptance ... notwithstanding the subsequent debates that erupted in numerous headquarters committees."53

"I was very much in favor of that mode of flight to the moon from the very beginning," Gilruth has since claimed. "I recall telling our people that LOR seemed the most promising mode to me-far more promising than either the direct ascent or the earth orbital rendezvous modes." The most important thing in planning for a manned lunar program was to minimize the risk of the landing operation. Thus, LOR was the best of the contending modes because it alone permitted the use of a smaller vehicle specifically designed for the job. In Gilruth's view, he was always encouraging to Houbolt. In his estimation, he felt all along that "the Space Task Group would be the key in carrying the decision through to the highest echelons of NASA" and that, "of course, this proved to be the case."54



John C. Houbolt, 1962.

Although Houbolt was not the first to foresee the advantages of a moon landing via LOR, his total commitment and crusading zeal won the support of key people in NASA.L-62-5208


Houbolt accepts very little of these ex post facto assertions; indeed, he violently disagrees with them. He points out that on several occasions in late 1960 he had briefed leading members of the STG about LOR and that Gilruth had to know his ideas. According to Houbolt, the STG had ignored and resisted his calculations as too optimistic and continued to ignore and resist them while insisting on the development of the large Nova boosters. As evidence, Houbolt points to many subsequent incidents in which his ideas were summarily discounted by the STG and to various statements of resistance from key STG members. One such statement came from Gilruth in an official letter as late as September 1961. "Rendezvous schemes are and have been of interest to the Space Task Group and are being studied," Gilruth informed NASA headquarters on 12 September. "However, the rendezvous approach itself will, to some extent, degrade mission reliability and flight safety." Rendezvous schemes such as Houbolt's "may be used as a crutch to achieve early planned dates for launch vehicle availability," Gilruth warned. Their advocates propose them "to avoid the difficulty of developing a reliable Nova class launch vehicle."55

Houbolt felt strongly that if he could just persuade Gilruth's people to do their homework on rendezvous, "then they too would become convinced of its merits." But for months he could not get them, or anyone else, to do that. LOR met with "virtually universal opposition-no one would accept it- they would not even study it." In Houbolt's words, "my perseverance, and solely mine" caused the STG and various other groups finally to study and [245] realize "the far-sweeping merits of the plan." "My own in-depth analysis, ... my crusading, . .. paved the way to the acceptance of the scheme."56

In early 1961, when the Low Committee announced its plan for a manned lunar landing and its aspiration for that bold mission to be made part of Project Apollo, NASA still appeared to be resisting LOR. In outlining the requirements for a manned lunar flight, the committee's chief recommendation was to focus on the direct approach to the moon, thus leaving rendezvous out; LOR was not discussed at all. Low remembers that during the time of his committee's deliberations, he asked one of the committee members, E. O. Pearson, Jr., to visit John Houbolt at Langley and "to advise the Committee whether we should give consideration to the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous Mode." Pearson, the assistant chief of the Aerodynamics and Flight Mechanics Research Division at NASA headquarters, returned with the answer, "No," LOR "was not the proper one to consider for a lunar landing." A rendezvous 240,000 miles from home, when rendezvous had never been demonstrated-Shepard's suborbital flight had not even been made yet seemed, literally and figuratively, "like an extremely far-out thing to do." 57

Thus the Low Committee in early 1961, recognizing that it would be much too expensive to develop and implement more than one lunar landing mission mode, made its "chief recommendation": NASA should focus on direct ascent. "This mistaken technical judgment was not Houbolt's fault," Low admitted years later, "but rather my fault in trusting a single Committee member instead of having the entire Committee review Houbolt's studies and recommendations."58


Mounting Frustration


Everything that happened in the first months of early 1961 reinforced John Houbolt's belief that NASA was dismissing LOR without giving it due consideration. On 20 January, Houbolt gave another long talk at NASA headquarters on rendezvous. In this briefing, he displayed analysis showing a manned lunar landing using Saturn rockets and outlined a simplified rendezvous scheme that had been devised by Art Vogeley and Lindsay J. Lina of the Guidance and Control Branch of Langley's Aero Space Mechanics Division. He also mentioned preliminary ideas for the development of fixed-base simulators by which to study the requirements for manned lunar orbit, landing, and rendezvous.59 On 27 and 28 February, NASA held an intercenter meeting on rendezvous in Washington, but no LOR presentation was made by Houbolt or anyone else. As if by political consensus, the subject was not even brought up. This prompted one concerned headquarters official, Bernard Maggin from the Office of Aeronautical and Space Research, to write Houbolt a memo commenting on NASA's, and especially the STG's, lack of consideration for LOR.60

[246] Institutional politics was involved in the unfolding lunar landing mission mode debate. The politics centered around the concern over where the work for the manned lunar program was going to be done. The organizations involved in building the big rockets were interested in direct ascent, which required the giant Nova, and in EOR, which required two or more Saturns per mission. Abe Silverstein, the director of the Office of Space Flight Programs at NASA headquarters, was working primarily from his experience as the former head of Lewis Research Center, which was the old NACA propulsion research laboratory now heavily involved in rocket development, so he naturally favored direct ascent. Wernher von Braun had to be thinking about the best interests of his Marshall Space Flight Center, which was primarily responsible at that time for developing the Saturns.61 For the most part, the management staff of Langley kept out of these debates. No matter which mission mode was implemented, Langley researchers and wind tunnels would have plenty of work to do to support the program.62

In some articles and history books on Project Apollo, LOR has been called a pet concept of Langley, but that was not the case. Even within Langley, LOR was embraced only by a small but vocal minority. Langley management did not get behind LOR until after the STG and the rest of NASA did. The personal opinion of Langley Director Floyd Thompson, as well as that of most of his senior staff, mirrored that of the STG: LOR was too complicated and risky. Direct ascent or EOR was the better choice.63

Although a brilliant engineering analyst and an energetic advocate of the causes he espoused, Houbolt was not an overly shrewd behind-the-scenes player of institutional politics. Faced with the impasse of early 1961, his first instinct was simply to find more informed retorts to the criticisms he had been hearing. So, with the help of Brown, Vogeley, Michael, Bird, Kurbjun, and a few others, he developed elaborate and detailed studies of the lunar landing mission he envisioned along with extensive analyses of weight savings. Somehow, he felt, he must find a way to circumvent the problem and convince the agency that it was making a big mistake by dismissing LOR.

On 19 April 1961, Houbolt was to give another briefing on rendezvous to the STG. In an effort to package his argument more convincingly, he created an "admiral's page." This was a short, visually convenient summary for "the admiral" designed to save him wading through a long report. For his STG briefing, Houbolt put 16 pages of charts, data plots, drawings, and outlined analyses-taken from his own analysis as well as material supplied by Langley's John Bird, Max Kurbjun, and Art Vogeley-onto one 17 x 22-inch foldout sheet. The title of his foldout was "Manned Lunar Landing Via Rendezvous" and on its cover was a telescopic photograph of the moon. Several important people attending the meeting received a copy of the foldout which helped them follow Houbolt's talk more closely.64

As had been the case in Houbolt's earlier presentations, this one also dealt with both EOR and LOR, but it had a clearly stated preference....



John C. Houbolt explaining lunar-orbit rendezvous scheme.

Houbolt explains the critical weight-saving advantage of the LOR scheme. Because the lunar excursion vehicle ("L.E.V.") in Houbolt's plan weighed only 19,320 pounds, compared to 82,700 pounds for the lander required for direct ascent or EOR, the total weight that must be boosted to earth escape could be reduced by more than half using LOR. L-62-5849


....for LOR. In this talk, however, Houbolt advocated for the first time two specific projects for which he supplied project names and acronyms. The first of these ("Project 1") he called "MORAD"-Manned Orbital Rendezvous and Docking. This was his old idea for a modest flight "experiment,, follow-on to Mercury that would "establish confidence" in manned rendezvous techniques. An unmanned payload from a Scout rocket would serve as a target vehicle for a maneuvering Mercury capsule in earth orbit. The second of the projects ("Project 2") he called "MALLIR"-Manned Lunar Landing Involving Rendezvous. This contained the essence of the controversial LOR scheme.65

[248] In the last box of his foldout, Houbolt listed his recommendations for "Immediate Action Required." For MORAD, he wanted NASA to give a quick go-ahead so that Langley could proceed with a work statement preparatory to contracting with industry to do a study. For MALLIR, he wanted NASA "to delegate responsibility to the Space Task Group" so that the STG would have to give "specific and accelerated consideration" to the possibility of including rendezvous as part of Project Apollo. In place of the STG's apparent resistance to his rendezvous ideas and its current discretionary freedom to treat the matter of rendezvous as part of Apollo on a will-also-consider basis, he wanted a NASA directive that made rendezvous integral to an accepted project. Houbolt wanted something that would make the STG, finally, give rendezvous the attention it merited. "I simply wanted people to study the problems and look at [them], and then make a judgment, but they wouldn't even do that," Houbolt remembers with some of his old frustration. "It was that strange a position."66

Nothing came immediately from either one of his proposals. Again, the reaction seemed to him to be mostly negative, as if the STG still wanted no part of his ideas. His frustration mounted. "I could never find a real answer to why they wouldn't even consider it," Houbolt laments. Perhaps it was the not-invented-here syndrome, perhaps it was just because he was an "outsider" who was "rocking the boat on their own thinking, and they didn't want anybody to do that,"67 or perhaps the STG was just not prepared to think seriously about such an incredibly bold and seemingly treacherous idea when they were still not even sure that they would be able to make their own Mercury program a complete success. Mercury "was proving so troublesome that rendezvous, however simple in theory, seemed very far away."68

At this April 1961 briefing, however, a solitary STG engineer did demonstrate a clear and exceptional interest in Houbolt's rendezvous analysis. James Chamberlin approached Houbolt after the meeting and asked him for an extra copy of the foldout sheet and "for anything else he had on rendezvous." Interestingly, both Houbolt and Chamberlin recall Chamberlin telling him that he had known about Langley's rendezvous work but this was the first time he had heard any of the details about the lunar-orbit version.69 One might indeed wonder then how widely the information from Houbolt's previous talks had spread within the STG. It seems significant that Chamberlin was not one of Gilruth's old-time associates from the NACA; he was one of the relative newcomers.***


President Kennedy's Commitment


Houbolt's April briefing to the STG came at the end of a humbling week for America. On 12 April the Soviets sent the first human into space, [249] cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, beating the United States in the second leg of the space race. Three days later, with President Kennedy's hesitant approval, a confused invasion force prepared by the CIA landed at Cuba's Bay of Pigs only to be driven back quickly by an unexpectedly efficient army of 20,000 led by communist Fidel Castro. Pierre Salinger, Kennedy's articulate press secretary, later called this period "the three grimmest days" of the Kennedy presidency. This national crisis proved in some ways to be more urgent than even the troubled aftermath of Sputnik.70

Up to this time, NASA had been preparing for a lunar landing mission as its long-term space goal. Some NASA visionaries, such as George Low, wanted to go to the moon sooner rather than later and were working to convince NASA leadership, now headed by a new administrator, James E. Webb, that such a program should be pushed with the politicians. Not all the politicians needed to be pushed. Most notably, Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson was pressing NASA for a more ambitious space agenda that included a lunar landing program.71 President Kennedy, however, needed to be convinced. The one-two punch of the Gagarin flight and Bay of Pigs fiasco followed by the welcome relief and excitement of Alan Shepard's successful Mercury flight on 5 May was enough to persuade the president. Sputnik I and 2 had taken place in the previous Republican administration and had helped the dynamic young senator from Massachusetts nose by Eisenhower's vice-president, Richard M. Nixon, in the 1960 election. Now, in just a month, Kennedy's "New Frontier" had itself been undermined by crisis. Something had to be done to provoke the country into rebounding from its recent second-place finishes and national humiliations.72 On 25 May, John Kennedy announced that American astronauts would be first to land on the moon.


Houbolt's First Letter to Seamans


Six days before Kennedy's historic announcement, and unaware that it was coming, John Houbolt shot off "a hurried non-edited and limited note" of three single spaced pages to Bob Seamans. Confident from past meetings that Associate Administrator Seamans was greatly interested in the subject of rendezvous, Houbolt took the liberty of cutting through several organizational layers to communicate with him directly.

Houbolt's message was straightforward and not overly passionate: the situation with respect to the development of new launch vehicles was "deplorable." The Saturns "should undergo major structural modifications" and "no committed booster plan" beyond Saturn was in place. Furthermore, NASA was still not attending to the use of rendezvous in the planned performance of the Apollo mission. "I do not wish to argue" whether "the direct way" or "the rendezvous way" is best, Houbolt reassured Seamans. But "because of the lag in launch vehicle developments," it appeared to

[250] him that "the only way that will be available to us in the next few years is the rendezvous way." For this reason alone Houbolt believed that it was "mandatory" that "rendezvous be as much in future plans as any item, and that it be attacked vigorously."73 If NASA researchers continued to dismiss LOR totally as they had been doing, Houbolt knew that someday they would be sorry.

If Houbolt had known that an ad hoc task group at NASA headquarters was at that moment in the midst of concluding that rendezvous had no place in the lunar landing program, his letter to Seamans might have been more urgent. But nothing in his letter suggests that Houbolt knew anything about the meetings of the Fleming Committee. Established by Seamans on 2 May, the job of this committee was to determine, in only four weeks, whether a manned lunar landing was in fact possible and how much it would cost. Chaired by NASA's assistant administrator for programs, William A. Fleming, who-unlike George Low was known to be neutral on the ideas of both a moon landing and the method for accomplishing it, this committee eventually recommended a lunar landing program based on a three-stage Nova. In essence, the Fleming Committee "avoided the question of rendezvous versus direct ascent." Seeing "no reason to base its study on a risky and untried alternative"-and apparently not recognizing that using a huge and unproven launch vehicle was also "risky and untried"- the committee spent all four weeks trying to choose between solid-fuel and liquid-fuel propellants for the Nova stages.74

Houbolt and the other LOR advocates at Langley would have been dismayed. To them, development of the rendezvous concept was "the obvious thing" to do before a lunar mission, but to so many others, space rendezvous was still an absurdly complicated and risky proposition. Some, like Bob Seamans, were not sure what to think. On 25 May, after hearing President Kennedy's speech, the associate administrator called for the appointment of yet another ad hoc committee, this one "to assess a wide variety of possible ways for executing a manned lunar landing."75 Bruce T. Lundin, an associate director of NASA Lewis, would chair this new committee.

Whether Houbolt's letter, written nearly a week before, directly caused Seamans to create the Lundin Committee is not certain. But the letter surely was a contributing factor as two pieces of circumstantial evidence appear to indicate.**** First, in explaining why a new task force was necessary, [251] Seamans explained to his director of Advanced Research Programs (Ira H. Abbott) and his director of Launch Vehicle Programs (Don R. Ostrander) that the Fleming Committee was finding it necessary "to restrict its considerations to a limited number of techniques by which it is feasible to accomplish the mission in the shortest possible time." Consequently, "numerous other approaches"-and Seamans specifically mentioned the use of rendezvous-were not currently being assessed. Second, Seamans, a busy man, wrote to Houbolt on 2 June, thanking him for his comments and reassuring the distressed Langley researcher that "the problems that concern you are of great concern to the whole agency." NASA headquarters had just organized "some intensive study programs," Seamans informed him, without mentioning the Fleming or Lundin committees by name. These programs "will provide us a base for decisions."76

Some historians have said that Seamans made sure that Houbolt was on the Lundin Committee; this is untrue. Houbolt was not an official member of that committee. Laurence K. Loftin, Jr., was Langley's representative, although he apparently did not attend all the meetings. Houbolt did meet with and talk to the committee several times, and in his view, was "the real Langley representative" because Loftin did not attend as regularly as he.77

The idea behind the Lundin Committee, at least as originally conceived by Seamans, was to take an open-minded look into the alternative "modes" for getting to the moon. Primarily, Seamans wanted the committee to examine those options involving "mission staging by rendezvous" and "alternative Nova vehicles." In the committee's initial meeting, however, that original objective seems to have been seriously compromised. Larry Loftin, who attended the opening meeting in early June 1961, remembers that Bob Seamans came in the first day and "sort of gave us our marching orders." Then Abe Silverstein, director of the Office of Space Flight Programs at NASA headquarters, came in to address the men:


Well, look fellas, I want you to understand something. I've been right most of my life about things, and if you guys are going to talk about rendezvous, any kind of rendezvous, as a way of going to the moon, forget it. I've heard a I those schemes and I don't want to hear any more of them, because we're not going to the moon using any of those schemes.


With those words of warning, which completely violated the reason for forming the committee in the first place, Silverstein "stomped out of the room "78

To its credit, the Lundin Committee disregarded Silverstein's admonition and considered a broad range of rendezvous schemes. With a complete analysis of the rendezvous problems by Houbolt and assorted insights from invited analysts both from inside and outside NASA, the group looked into mission profiles involving rendezvous in earth orbit, in transit to the moon, in lunar orbit before landing, in lunar orbit after takeoff from the moon, and in both earth and lunar orbit. The committee even considered the idea of [252] a lunar-surface rendezvous. This involved launching a fuel cache and a few other unmanned components of a return spacecraft to the moon's surface a payload of some 5000 pounds-and then landing astronauts separately in a second spacecraft whose fuel supply would be exhausted just reaching the moon. The notion, as absurd as it now sounds, was for the landed astronauts to leave their craft and locate the previously deposited hardware (homing beacons previously landed as part of the unmanned Surveyor program were to make pinpoint landings possible) and then to assemble and fuel a new spacecraft for the return trip home. The spacecraft would be checked out by television monitoring equipment before sending men from earth to the landing area via a second spacecraft.

Houbolt thought this was "the most harebrained idea" he had ever heard. In the committee's final "summary rating" of the comparative value of the various rendezvous concepts, however, lunar-surface rendezvous finished only slightly lower than did Houbolt's LOR. One anonymous committee member (most likely the JPL representative) chose lunar-surface rendezvous as his first choice.79

As Houbolt remembers bitterly, the Lundin Committee "turned down LOR cold." In the final rating made by the six voting committee members (Loftin voted, but Houbolt did not), it finished a distant third-receiving no first-place votes and only one second-place vote. Coming in far ahead of LOR were two low-earth-orbit rendezvous schemes, the first one utilizing two to three Saturn C-3 boosters and the other involving a Saturn C-1 plus the Nova. Both were concepts strongly favored by NASA Marshall staff, who by this time had grabbed onto the idea of EOR for its potential technological applications to the development of an orbiting space station . 80

Houbolt was devastated when he heard the results. To have LOR placed on the same level as the ridiculous lunar-surface rendezvous was especially insulting. He had given the Lundin Committee his full-blown pitch complete with foldout sheet and slides. "They'd say, 'That sounds pretty good, John,' but then the next morning the same guys would come up and say, 'John, that's no good; we don't like it at all."' For Houbolt, this perverse reaction was hard to understand. 81 Loftin reflects on the general fear and pessimism about LOR that ultimately ruled the committee:


We thought it was too risky. Remember in 1961 we hadn't even orbited Glenn yet.
We certainly had done no rendezvous yet. And to put this poor bastard out there, separate him in a module, let him go down to the surface, and then fire him back up and expect him to rendezvous. He didn't get a second chance; it had to be dead right the first time. I mean that just seemed like a bit much.


Loftin and the others believed-incorrectly-that LOR offered no possibility for a rescue mission. In earth orbit, if something went wrong, NASA still might be able to save its astronauts. Loftin felt along with the others that the idea of LOR was just "kind of absurd."82 The Lundin Committee could [253] not bring itself to acknowledge that all the other mission-mode options entailed greater risks.

As discouraged as John Houbolt was after the Lundin Committee's recommendation, the situation would soon become worse. On 20 June, 10 days after the Lundin Committee delivered its blow, Bob Seamans formed yet another task force. This one was chaired by his assistant director of launch vehicle programs, Donald H. Heaton. Following up on the summary ratings and recommendations of the Lundin Committee, Seamans asked Heaton's group to focus on EOR and to establish the program plans and the supporting resources needed to accomplish the manned lunar landing mission using rendezvous techniques.83 Trying to stay within those guidelines, Heaton refused to let Houbolt, an official member of this committee, mention LOR.

Houbolt felt he was caught in a bizarre trap of someone else's making. He was one of the strongest believers in rendezvous in the country, and that meant either kind of rendezvous. Just days before the Heaton Committee was formed, he had returned from France, where he had given a well-received formal presentation on EOR and LOR at an international spaceflight symposium.84 He and his Langley associates had done the analysis, and they knew that LOR would work better than EOR for a manned lunar landing. He pleaded with Heaton to study LOR as well as EOR. Heaton simply answered, "We're not going to do that, John. It's not in our charter." "If you feel strongly enough about it," Heaton challenged, 'write your own lunar-orbit report."85

Houbolt eventually did just that. As for Heaton's own report, which was published in late August, it concluded that rendezvous-EOR, that is- "offers the earliest possibility for a successful manned lunar landing." In postulating the design of the spacecraft that would make that type of lunar mission, however, the Heaton Committee previewed a baseline configuration that Houbolt regarded as a "beast." It involved "some five different pieces of hardware that were going to be assembled in the earth-orbit rendezvous," Houbolt remembers. "It was a great big long cigar." In his opinion, such an unwieldy concept "would hurt the cause of rendezvous." He feared NASA engineers, especially in the STG, would read the Heaton report and say, "Well, we knew it all the time: these rendezvous guys are nuts."86

Or they were being driven nuts. For many NASA engineers, the summer of 1961 was the busiest summer of their lives; it certainly was the busiest of John Houbolt's. "I was living half the time in Washington, half the time on the road, dashing back and forth."87 In mid-July he was to be in Washington again, to give a talk at the NASA/Industry Apollo Technical Conference This was an important meeting that was to include about 300 potential Project Apollo contractors. It was so important that Langley management in association with the STG, in the tradition of NACA/NASA annual inspections, was holding a formal rehearsal of all its presentations prior to the conference.



Viewgraph comparing the propulsion steps of the three lunar mission modes

In making his pitch to various NASA committees and study groups in 1961 and 1962, Houbolt used this viewgraph comparing the propulsion steps involved in direct flight, LOR, and EOR, thereby demonstrating the much higher probability of success with LOR.


Houbolt was to give his talk at the end of rehearsals because he had another NASA meeting earlier that day in Washington. "I was to rush out to the airport at Washington National, get on the airplane, they were to pick me up here and then bring me to where they were having the rehearsals." However, when he arrived breathless at the airport, the airplane could not take off. In refueling the aircraft, the ground crew had spilled fuel on one of the tires and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would not let the plane take off until the tire had been changed. That made Houbolt a little late and the STG member waiting for him a little impatient. "They dashed me back to the conference room," and with all of the other rehearsals finished, "everybody was sort of twiddling their thumbs," complaining, "'Where the hell is this Houbolt?"'88

With a brief apology, Houbolt moved right into his talk. Until the end, he purposefully said nothing about LOR; he spoke only about rendezvous in general. Then he showed three or four final slides. "There is a very interesting possibility that rendezvous offers," Houbolt ventured, feeling like a lawyer who was trying to slip in evidence that he knew the judge would [255] not allow, "and that is how to go to the moon in a very simplified way." He then described the whole LOR concept. 89

People listened politely and thanked him when he had finished. "That's a damn good paper, John," offered Langley Associate Director Charles Donlan. "But throw out all that nonsense on lunar-orbit rendezvous." Houbolt remembers that Max Faget and several other members of the STG piped in with the same advice.90

The Lundin Committee had been strike one against Houbolt: LOR had been turned down cold. The Heaton Committee had been strike two: LOR would not even be considered. Houbolt's rehearsal talk was in a sense a third strike. But at least all three had been swinging strikes, so to speak. Houbolt had used each occasion to promote LOR, and he had given his best effort each time. Furthermore, he was allowed a few more times at bat. An inning was over, but the game was not.

Houbolt's next time at bat came quickly, in August 1961, when he met with the Golovin Committee, which was yet another of Bob Seamans' ad hoc task forces. Established on 7 July 1961, this joint Large Launch Vehicle Planning Group was co-chaired by Nicholas E. Golovin, Seamans' special technical assistant, and Lawrence L. Kavanau of the DOD. This committee was to recommend not only a booster rocket for Project Apollo but also other launch vehicle configurations that would meet the anticipated needs of NASA and the DOD.91

Nothing in the committee's charge, which was to concern itself only with large launch vehicle systems, necessitated an inquiry into the LOR scheme; however, Eldon W. Hall, Harvey Hall, and Milton W. Rosen (all of the Office of Launch Vehicle Programs) and members of the Golovin Committee asked that the LOR concept be presented for their consideration in the form of a mission plan.92 This was to be done as part of a systematic comparative evaluation of three types of rendezvous operations (earth-orbit, lunar-orbit, and lunar-surface) and direct ascent for manned lunar landing. The Golovin Committee assigned the study of EOR to Marshall Space Flight Center, lunar-surface rendezvous to JPL, and LOR to Langley. The NASA Office of Launch Vehicle Programs would itself provide the information on direct ascent.93

This commitment to a comparative evaluation of the mission modes, including LOR, constitutes a critical turning point in the torturous intellectual and bureaucratic process by which NASA eventually decided upon a mission mode for Project Apollo. The Golovin Committee would not conclude in favor of LOR. Its final somewhat vacillating recommendation, made in mid-October, was in favor of a hybrid rendezvous scheme that combined aspects of both EOR and LOR. However, the committee's preference was clearly for some form of rendezvous. Lunar-surface rendezvous, JPL's pet project, had been ruled out, and direct ascent was fading from the realm of possibility. The engineering calculations showed clearly that any single rocket that had to carry all the fuel necessary for completing the entire lunar mission....



Comparative sizes of manned mission rockets and Comparison of lander sizes.

By using drawings that compared the sizes of rockets (top) and lunar landing vehicles (bottom), Houbolt tried to convince the nonbelievers that LOR was the only way to go to the moon. L-1629


[257] ....was not a realistic option especially if the mission was to be accomplished anytime close to President Kennedy's deadline.

For Houbolt and the other LOR advocates, the work of the Golovin Committee meant the first meaningful opportunity to demonstrate the merits of LOR in a full-blown comparison with the other viable options. This consideration was the opportunity that Houbolt had been asking for in all of his previously unsuccessful briefings. When he appeared before the Golovin Committee in August, "they were damn impressed." They asked him, to his delight, whether the STG knew all about LOR. Golovin turned to Aleck C. Bond, the STG's representative on the committee, and asked him to go back to Langley and "check with your fellows on what they're doing about this." A few days later, Houbolt was back in front of the STG talking to them about the same thing that they had told him not to talk about just the month before.94

The STG, with the Shepard and Grissom flights at least behind them and the Golovin Committee now urging them to study rendezvous, started to reconsider. Thus far, as other historians have noted, the STG had "seen little merit in any form of rendezvous for lunar missions," but reserved "its greatest disdain for the lunar orbit version." Now, at least, some STG engineers were showing solid interest. In early September 1961, Jim Chamberlin, who had asked for Houbolt's material after hearing the proposals for MORAD and MALLIR five months earlier, talked to Gilruth about an LOR plan for a lunar landing program and for a preparatory three flight rendezvous experiment, both of which sounded similar to the ideas Houbolt had been promoting. Although Gilruth was not convinced of the merits of such a scheme, he was open to their further evaluation.95

Chamberlin's notion derived in part from the STG's August 1961 proposal for an accelerated circumlunar program; this proposal appeared as an appendix to its "Preliminary Project Development Plan for an Advanced Manned Space Program Utilizing the Mark II Two-Man Spacecraft." In essence, the larger document called for the start of what became known as Project Gemini, the series of two-man rendezvous and docking missions in earth orbit that NASA successfully carried out between March 1965 and November 1966. But the idea for Project Gemini, as proposed by Chamberlin at least, must also have had some important connection to Houbolt's April 1961 MORAD proposal.96


A Voice in the Wilderness


During the late summer and early fall of 1961, Houbolt was busily preparing the formal report that the Golovin Committee had requested. Except for his "admiral's page," much of the analysis in favor of LOR was still in a loose form. With John Bird, Art Vogeley, Max Kurbjun, and the other rendezvous people at Langley, he set out to document their research [258] findings and demonstrate what a complete manned lunar landing mission using LOR would entail. The result was an impressive two-volume report entitled "Manned Lunar-Landing through Use of Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous." Published by NASA Langley on 31 October 1961, this report promoted what its principal author, John Houbolt, called a "particularly appealing scheme" for performing the manned lunar landing mission.97

This extremely thorough document might seem sufficient even for a zealous crusader like Houbolt, but it was not. The Heaton Committee had submitted its final report in August 1961-a report with which Houbolt fervently disagreed. Houbolt took committee chair Heaton up on his remark about submitting his own report.

On 15 November 1961, Houbolt "fired off" a nine-page letter to Seamans with two different editions of his LOR admiral's page attached to it without ever thinking that it might cost him his job. He was again bypassing proper channels, a bold move for a government employee, and appealing directly to the associate administrator. "Somewhat as a voice in the wilderness," Houbolt's letter opened, "I would like to pass on a few thoughts that have been of deep concern to me over recent months." Houbolt's main complaint was about the bureaucratic guidelines that had made it impossible for the Heaton Committee to consider the merits of LOR. "Do we want to go to the moon or not?, and, if so, why do we have to restrict our thinking to a certain narrow channel?" He asked: "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?"98

"I fully realize that contacting you in this manner is somewhat unorthodox," Houbolt admitted, "but the issues at stake are crucial enough to us all that an unusual course is warranted." Houbolt realized that Seamans might feel that he was "dealing with a crank." "Do not be afraid of this," Houbolt pleaded. "The thoughts expressed here may not be stated in as diplomatic a fashion as they might be, or as I would normally try to do, but this is by choice." Most important was that Seamans hear his heartfelt ideas directly and "not after they have filtered through a score or more of other people, with the attendant risk [that] they may not even reach you."99

It took two weeks for Seamans to reply to Houbolt's extraordinary letter. When he did, the associate administrator agreed that "it would be extremely harmful to our organization and to the country if our qualified staff were unduly limited by restrictive guidelines." He assured Houbolt that NASA would in the future be paying more attention to LOR.100

Seamans also informed him that he had passed his long letter with its attachments on to Brainerd Holmes, who had just replaced Abe Silverstein as head of the Office of Manned Space Flight (recently renamed Space Flight Programs). Unlike Seamans, who apparently was not overly bothered by the letter being sent out of formal organizational channels, Holmes "didn't like it at all" and said so when in turn he passed Houbolt's letter on to George Low, his director of spacecraft and flight missions. Low was more forgiving.



George M. Low

Although he too had been slow to accept the LOR scheme, NASA leader George M. Low eventually became a devout believer not only in LOR but also in the essential role played by Houbolt in its adoption.


Although he conceded that Houbolt probably should have followed standard procedures, he found the basic message "relatively sound." He, too, felt that "the bug approach" might yet prove to be "the best way of getting to the moon" and that NASA needed to give it as much attention as any other alternative. At the end of the memo to Holmes in which he passed on these feelings, Low recommended that Houbolt be invited to Washington to present in detail Langley's plan for a manned lunar landing via LOR. Low even went so far as to suggest that Houbolt should be made a member of Holmes's staff.101

That never happened, but another person who joined Holmes's staff at this time, Dr. Joseph F. Shea, came to play a major role in supporting Houbolt's ideas and making the eventual decision in favor of LOR. Shea arrived at NASA the first week of January 1962 as Holmes's deputy director for spaceflight systems. From 1956 to 1959 the energetic engineer from the Bronx had served as the systems engineer at Bell Laboratories for a radio guidance project involving the Titan I rocket. In 1959 he moved to General Motors, where he ran the advanced development operation for its A. C. Sparkplug Division. His major achievement while in this job was to win a contract for the development of an inertial guidance system for the Titan II. 102

With NASA, Joe Shea found himself thrust into the job of sorting out the best means of accomplishing the lunar landing mission. During his first days [260] in office, Brainerd Holmes came to see him, with his copy of Houbolt's letter in hand. Shea perused the long letter and was taken down to Seamans' office where Seamans asked him if he thought anything of value could be found in Houbolt's message. Having received an unsure response, Seamans then advised the young systems engineer that NASA really did not know how it was going to go to the moon. Shea answered tactfully, "I was beginning to get that same suspicion." 103

"Shea didn't know much about what was going on," John Houbolt remembers, but quickly he became informed. Within days of his meeting with Seamans and Holmes about the Houbolt letter, Shea was at Langley for a private conversation with Houbolt and for a general briefing attended by Langley management and the leadership of the STG. Going into the meeting, if Shea had a preference for any one lunar mission mode, it was a weak one for EOR, but after reading Houbolt's letter to Seamans and knowing Seamans' sympathetic reaction to it, Shea was not adverse to other options. Shea was an open-minded man who "prided himself on going wherever the data took him." 104

This time the data took him to LOR. When Houbolt finished his much practiced pitch, the receptive Shea admitted that the analysis looked "pretty good" to him. The new boy on the block of manned spaceflight then turned to Gilruth, Faget, and other members of the STG and asked them politely if they, too, had been thinking along the lines of LOR. Having gotten the word about the general skepticism to Houbolt's ideas, Shea expected a negative reaction. He did not receive one. Instead, the STG leaders responded in a mildly positive way that signified to Shea, as the discussion continued, that "actually, they had been doing some more thinking about lunar-orbit rendezvous and, as a matter of fact, they were beginning to think it was a good idea." 105

Shea returned to Washington convinced that LOR was a viable option for Apollo and that the next step was for NASA to contract for an even more detailed study of its potential. On 1 March 1962, eight days after astronaut John Glenn's historic three orbit flight in the Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7, NASA named Chance Vought Corporation as the contractor to study spacecraft rendezvous. The firm had on staff one of the original proponents of LOR, Tom Dolan. At Langley on 29 March 1962, a group of researchers led by Houbolt briefed a Chance Vought team on the center's LOR research and mission plan. On 2 and 3 April, Shea presented LOR as a possible mission mode for Apollo in a headquarters meeting that was attended by representatives of all the NASA centers.106 The final decision to select LOR for Apollo was about to be made.


The LOR Decision


In the months following Houbolt's second letter to Seamans, NASA gave LOR the serious consideration that Houbolt had long been crusading for.

[261] To the surprise of many, both inside and outside the agency, the darkhorse candidate became the front runner. Several factors worked in LOR's favor. First, many were becoming disenchanted with the idea of direct ascent because of the time and money required to develop the huge Nova rocket. Second, technical apprehension was growing over how the relatively large spacecraft demanded even by EOR would be able to maneuver to a soft and pinpoint landing on the moon. As Langley's expert on the dynamics of rendezvous, Art Vogeley, has explained, "The business of eyeballing that thing down to the moon really didn't have a satisfactory answer. The best thing about LOR was that it allowed us to build a separate vehicle for landing." 107

The first major group to break camp in favor of LOR was Bob Gilruth's STG, which during the critical months of the Apollo mission mode debate was harried not only with the planning for the first Mercury orbital flight but also with packing and leaving for its new home, the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. During an interview in the late 1980s, Houston's Max Faget recalled the details of how the STG Manned Spacecraft Center finally became convinced that LOR was the right choice. By early 1962,


we found ourselves settling into a program that was not easy to run, because so many different groups were involved In particular, we were concerned about the big landing rocket, because landing on the moon would, of course, be the most delicate part of the mission. The landing rocket's engine, which would be controlled by the astronauts, would have to be throttleable, so that the command-and-service module could hover, and move this way and that, to find a proper place to touch down.


Obtaining that capability meant the need for "a really intimate interface, requiring numerous connections, between the two elements," as well as between Houston and NASA Lewis.


Accordingly, we invented a new proposal for our own and von Braun's approach it involved a simpler descent engine, called the lunar crasher, which Lewis would do. It wouldn't be throttleable, so the interface would be simpler, and it would take the astronauts down to a thousand feet above the lunar surface. There it would be jettisoned, and it would crash onto the moon. Then there would be a smaller, throttleable landing stage for the last thousand feet, which we would do, so that we would be in charge of both sides of that particular interface.


At that point, however, Faget and his colleagues in Texas "ran into a real wall," 108

Initially their thinking had been that the landing would be done automatically with radar and instrument control. Then the astronauts, along with a growing number of NASA engineers (primarily at Langley), began to argue that the astronauts were going to need complete control during the last phases of landing and therefore would require a wide range of visibility from the descending spacecraft. How to provide that visibility "with a [262] landing rocket big enough to get the command-and-service module down to the lunar surface and wide enough to keep it upright" was the problem that Houston began tackling in early 1962 and found very quickly they could not solve. "We toyed with various concepts," Faget remembers, such as putting a front viewing porch on the outside or a glass bubble on top of the CM similar to the cockpit of a helicopter. But all the redesigns had serious flaws. For example, "the porch would have to be jettisoned before lift-off from the moon, because it would unbalance the spacecraft." "It was a mess," Faget admitted. "No one had a winning idea. Lunar-orbit rendezvous was the only sensible alternative.''109

Houbolt's role in the STG's eventual "coming-around" to LOR cannot be described without upsetting someone or at least questioning the accuracy of someone's memory. Faget, Gilruth, and others associated with the Manned Spacecraft Center believe that Houbolt's activities were "useful" but hardly as vital as many others, notably Houbolt himself, believe them to be. "John Houbolt just assumed that he had to go to the very top," Gilruth has explained, "he never talked to me." Gilruth maintains that "the lunar orbit rendezvous would have been chosen without Houbolt's somewhat frantic efforts." The "real work of convincing the officials in Washington and Huntsville," he says, was done "by the spacecraft group in Houston during the six or eight months following President Kennedy's decision to fly to the moon." Gilruth's group sold the concept, first to Huntsville and then, together with von Braun, to NASA headquarters. Houbolt's out-of-channels letter to Seamans was, in Gilruth's opinion, irrelevant.110

Houbolt calls the STG's version self-serving "baloney." He talked to Gilruth or his people many times, and not once did they tell him that they were really on his side. If just one time Gilruth or some other influential officer in the manned space program had said to him, "You can stop fighting. We are now on your side; and we'll take it from here," then, Houbolt claims, he would have been satisfied. But they never said that to him, and they certainly did not say it "during the six or eight months" after Kennedy's speech. In fact, their words always suggested just the opposite. Not until early 1962, after prodding from Joe Shea, did the STG give any indication that it, too, was interested in LOR.111

Significantly, the outsiders or third parties to the question of Houbolt's role in influencing the STG's position on the mission mode for Apollo tend to side with Houbolt. Bob Seamans remembers the STG showing nothing but disdain for LOR during 1961.112 George Low agrees. To the best of his recollection, "it was Houbolt's letter to Seamans that brought the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous Mode back into the picture." Only after that did a group within the STG under Owen Maynard begin to study LOR. "Based on Houbolt's input" and on the results of the systems engineering studies carried out at the behest of Joe Shea's Office of Manned Space Flight Systems, "the decision was finally made" about the lunar landing mission mode. "Without a doubt," in Low's view, the letter Houbolt sent [263] to Seamans in November 1961 and the discussions at headquarters that it provoked "were the start of bringing LOR into Apollo.''113

One final piece of testimony from an informed third party supports the importance of Houbolt's role in convincing the STG of the benefits of LOR. Starting in late 1961, NACA veteran Axel Mattson served as NASA Langley's technical liaison officer at the Manned Spacecraft Center. Mattson, who was responsible for coordinating the other NASA centers for the first NASA inspection, maintained a small office at the Houston facility for the timely moving of technical information between Langley and Gilruth's recently removed STG. Mattson's operation was not high profile, nor was it supposed to be. According to the agreement that had been worked out between Gilruth and Langley Director Floyd Thompson, Mattson was to spend most of his time with the engineers who were working on Mercury problems.114

In early 1962, sometime after the Shea briefing, Langley sent Houbolt to Houston. The purpose of his visit was, in Mattson's words, "to get the STG people really to agree that [LOR] was the best way to go and to support it." Mattson took him to practically everyone who had some interest in the mission mode issue, and Houbolt told them about LOR and answered all their questions. At the end of the day, Mattson felt that "it was all over." "We had the support of the Manned Spacecraft Center" for LOR.115

Significantly, on 6 February 1962, Houbolt and former Langley engineer Charles W. Mathews of the Manned Spacecraft Center gave a joint presentation on rendezvous to the Manned Space Flight Management Council. This council was a special body formed by Brainerd Holmes in December 1961 to identify and resolve difficulties in the manned spaceflight program on a month-to-month basis. In their presentation the two engineers compared the merits of LOR and EOR and clearly favored LOR. Gilruth had telephoned Houbolt personally to ask him to give this talk. In Houbolt's memory, the invitation was "the first concession" that Gilruth had ever made to him regarding LOR. 116

With the STG now firmly behind LOR, its adoption became a contest between the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. Marshall was a bastion of EOR supporters. Von Braun's people recognized two things: EOR would require the development of advanced versions of Marshall's own Saturn booster, and the selection of EOR for the lunar landing program would require construction of a platform in earth orbit that could have many uses other than for Apollo. For this reason, space station advocates-who existed in droves at the Alabama facility-were enthusiastic about EOR.117 To this day, many of them feel that EOR would have had the best long-term results.

But von Braun, their own director, would disappoint them. During the spring of 1962, the transplanted German rocket designer made the decision to throw his weight behind LOR. He surprised his staff with this shocking....



Wernher von Braun at Langley.

Taking charge of every situation, Wernher von Braun (second from left) entertains his hosts during a visit to Langley in April 1966. To the far right stand Floyd Thompson and Charles Donlan. L-66-3090


....announcement at the end of a day-long briefing given to Joe Shea at Marshall on 7 June 1962:

we at the Marshall Space Flight Center readily admit that when first exposed to the proposal of the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous Mode we were a bit skeptical-particularly of the aspect of having the astronauts execute a complicated rendezvous maneuver at a distance of 240,000 miles from the earth where any rescue possibility appeared remote In the meantime, however, we have spent a great deal of time and effort studying the four modes [EOR, LOR, and two Direct Ascent modes, one involving the Nova and the other a Saturn C-5], and we have come to the conclusion that this particular disadvantage is far outweighed by [its] advantages....
We understand that the Manned Spacecraft center was also quite skeptical at first when John Houbolt advanced the proposal of the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous Mode, and that it took them quite a while to substantiate the feasibility of the method and finally endorse it.
Against this background it can, therefore, be concluded that the issue of 'invented here' versus 'not invented here' does not apply to either the Manned Spacecraft center or the Marshall Space Flight Center; that both Centers have actually embraced a scheme suggested by a third source. . . I consider it fortunate indeed for the Manned Lunar Landing Program that both Centers, after much soul searching, have come to identical conclusions.


[265] The persuasive von Braun then elaborated on "why we do not recommend" the direct ascent and EOR modes, and "why we do recommend the Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous Mode."118

For Marshall employees and many other people inside NASA, von Braun's announcement seemed to represent a type of closure, that is, the culmination of a sociopolitical process "when a consensus emerges that a problem arising during the development of a technology has been solved." In this case, it was a very undemocratic form of closure, coming from von Braun himself, with very little support from his own people. But NASA, of course, was not a democratic organization. For closure to occur and LOR to become the mission mode for Apollo, referendum or consensus was not necessary; it only required that a decision be made and supported by a few key people: von Braun, Bob Gilruth, Bob Seamans, Administrator James Webb, and President Kennedy.119

How von Braun was persuaded is a historically significant matter. Although some questions about his motives remain unanswered, one apparent factor in his conversion was that he understood the necessity of moving ahead with the program if NASA was to meet President Kennedy's deadline. No progress was possible until the decision about the mission mode was made. Both the Manned Spacecraft Center and Langley's John Houbolt had worked to convince von Braun to come over to their side. In April 1962 Houbolt sent von Braun several papers prepared at Langley on a lunar landing mission using LOR, including the published two volume report. Von Braun had requested the papers personally after hearing Houbolt's presentation at NASA headquarters. Von Braun not only passed copies of the Langley papers to Hermann Koelle in Marshall's Future Projects Office but also, after making his unexpected announcement in favor of LOR to the stunned crowd of Marshall employees in early June, reciprocated by sending Houbolt a copy of the remarks he had made. This was a noteworthy courtesy. The final sentence of the cover letter asked Houbolt to "please treat this confidentially since no final decision on the mode has yet been made."120

The LOR decision was finalized in the following weeks when the two powerful groups of converts at Houston and Huntsville, along with the original little band of true believers at Langley, persuaded key officials at NASA headquarters, notably Administrator James Webb, who had been holding out for direct ascent, that LOR was the only way to land on the moon by 1969. With the key players now supporting the concept, the NASA Manned Space Flight Management Council announced on 22 June 1962 that it favored LOR. On 11 July, the agency announced that it had selected the mode for Apollo. Webb made the announcement even though President Kennedy's science adviser, Dr. Jerome Wiesner, remained firmly opposed to LOR.121

On the day that NASA made the public announcement, Houbolt was giving a paper on the dynamic response of airplanes to atmospheric turbulence....



On 14 March 1969, four months before the first lunar landing, Life magazine featured the LEM on its cover (right). The magazine proposed a cover featuring John Houbolt (below) but did not use it because of NASA's concern for giving too much credit to any one person for the decision to go to the moon via LOR. L-66-63301


Life magazine cover featuring the lunar excursion module.


Rejected Life cover of John C. Houbolt.


[267] ....at a meeting of NATO's Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and Development (AGARD) in Paris.122 His division chief, Isadore E. ("Ed") Garrick, was also at the meeting. A talented applied mathematician who had been working at Langley since the 1930s, Garrick had witnessed the evolution of his assistant's ideas on space navigation and rendezvous. He had listened sympathetically to all of Houbolt's stories about the terrible things that had been blocking a fair hearing of LOR.

While at the AGARD meeting in Paris, Garrick saw a little blurb in the overseas edition of the New York Herald Tribune about NASA's decision to use LOR. Garrick showed the paper to Houbolt, who had not seen it, shook Houbolt's hand, and said, "Congratulations, John. They've adopted your scheme. I can safely say I'm shaking hands with the man who single-handedly saved the government $20 billion.''123

In the ensuing years, whenever the question of Houbolt's importance for the LOR decision came up for discussion, Garrick said that he was "practically certain that without John Houbolt's persistence it would have taken several more years for LOR to have been adopted." Although "the decisions of many other people were essential to the process" and although "there is no controversy that Houbolt had help from others, ... the essential prime mover, moving 'heaven and earth' to get the concepts across, remains Houbolt himself.''124




Whether NASA's choice of LOR would have been made in the summer of 1962 or at any later time without the research information, the commitment, and the crusading zeal of Houbolt remains a matter for historical conjecture. His basic contribution, however, and that of his Langley associates who in their more quiet ways also developed and advocated LOR, seem now to be beyond debate. They were the first in NASA to recognize the fundamental advantages of the LOR concept, and for a critical period in the early 1960s, they were also the only ones inside the agency to foster and fight for it. The story of the genesis of LOR underscores the vital role occasionally played by the unpopular opinion. It testifies to the essential importance of the single individual contribution even within the context of a large organization based on teamwork. And it demonstrates the importance of passionate persistence in the face of strong opposition and the pressure for conformity.

Thousands of factors contributed to the ultimate success of the Apollo lunar landing missions, but no single factor was more essential than the concept of LOR. Without NASA's adoption of this stubbornly held minority Opinion, the United States might not have reached the moon by the end of the decade as President Kennedy had promised. Without LOR, possibly no one even now-near the beginning of the twenty-first century-would have stepped onto the moon.

[268] No less an authority than George Low has expressed this same judgment. "It is my opinion to this day," Low wrote in 1982, "that had the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous Mode not been chosen, Apollo would not have succeeded." A11 of the other modes "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." Low has also gone on record with his belief, that without "John Houbolt's persistence in calling this method to the attention of NASA's decision makers," and "without Houbolt's letter to Seamans (and the work that backed up that letter)," NASA "might not have chosen the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous Mode." Houbolt's commitment was a key factor in the adoption of LOR and was "a major contribution to the success of Apollo and, therefore, to the Nation.''125

At 4:17 p.m. (EDT) on 20 July 1969, John Houbolt, now a senior consultant with the innovative Aeronautical Research Associates of Princeton, New Jersey, sat inconspicuously as one of the invited guests and dignitaries in the viewing room of Mission Control at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. Like so many others around the world at that moment, he listened in wonder to the deliberately spoken yet wildly dramatic words of Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong: "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed "

Alternate cheering and shushing followed that precious moment, when Americans landed and stepped onto the moon for the first time. Turning from his seat, NASA's master rocketeer, Wernher von Braun, found Houbolt's eye among all the others, gave him the okay sign, and said to him simply, "John, it worked beautifully.''126


* One can summarize the LOR concept with three specifications: (1) Only a specially designed LEM would actually descend to the moon's surface; (2) Only a portion of that LEM, the ascent stage, would return to dock with the CM in lunar orbit; and (3) Only the CM or Apollo capsule itself, with its protective heat shield, would fall back to earth.

** This scenario would indeed happen during the mission of Apollo 13, when outward bound and 200,000 miles from earth, an explosion in one of the oxygen tanks within the service module caused a leak in another oxygen tank and confronted NASA with an urgent life threatening problem. NASA solved the problem by having the astronauts head home, without landing, and by moving them temporarily into the atmosphere of the LEM.

*** The former chief of design for the Avro Arrow aircraft, Chamberlin had been recruited by the STG in late 1959.

**** Houbolt believes that Seemams created the Lundin Committee solely in response to his letter. "The story I got [from somebody else at NASA headquarters] was that my letter jolted Seamans, and he got up at five o'clock in the morning, got on the phone, called several people and said, 'Be at my office at seven o'clock'.... And then they formed the Lundin Committee." No documents exist to back up Houbolt's version of the story . Based on what Seamans has said about the formation of the Lundin Committee, there is no doubt that Houbolt's letter did contribute directly to its establishment but perhaps not as exclusively as Houbolt has heard. (Houbolt interview with author, Williamsburg, Va., 24 Aug. 1989, transcript, p 31, Langley Historical Archives.)

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