Unless you’re from Joliet, IL or are a big fan of the space program, you may never have heard of John C. Houbolt. He was a man with a Big Idea, and without it – and him – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin might never have stepped on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969.
Engineers are perhaps the least glamorous of all the techies and ‘geeks.’ The public sees them as the most narrowly focused, least creative of the STEM professionals, but that need not be the case. Houbolt was certainly imaginative enough. When President John F. Kennedy told the world that we were engaged in the feat of putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s and returning him safely to earth, JFK took his space program people by surprise. Nobody in NASA knew by which mechanism that was to be accomplished. There was no plan; no process had been discussed. They had no idea what kind of spacecraft was needed or even where to start.
Rocket scientist Wernher von Braun wanted a ‘big blast’ approach – but how big a craft would be need with how much fuel, and could you even get that off the earth? How would you land it on the moon and get it back again? Others looked to launching something from earth orbit, but of course that hadn’t been done yet, either (it still hasn’t, if you don’t count departures from the International Space Station returning to earth). The debate raged within the agency. Everybody ignored John Houbolt, an obscure engineer inside NASA who during the early 1960s was working at the Langley Research Center in Virginia. Houbolt might have been one of the most vocal critics of the two opposing plans being debated at the time, but he was still relatively unknown, even within the agency.
That is, he was unknown until he completely broke protocol, going over the heads of his boss and his boss’s boss, and wrote directly to incoming NASA Associate Administrator Robert C. Seamans Jr., asking: “Do we want to go to the moon, or not?” And if we did, he said further, he had an idea. One called lunar orbit rendezvous, which he’d been arguing for since the early 1950s, only to have it dismissed as far-fetched. Lunar orbit rendezvous was a pretty daring idea – it meant leaving the transport vehicle that brought the astronauts to the moon in lunar orbit and using a lighter, single-purpose vehicle to descend to the moon and return again to the orbiting space vehicle later. It was a smaller and less expensive option (lighter meant less fuel, also less cost).
Fortunately, Seamans listened and made others listen, too. Houbolt’s big idea led to the development of the Lunar Module or LM (the ‘lem’ in NASA-speak), in which Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the moon during the Apollo 11 flight and in which they lived and worked while on the moon’s surface. It also took the two men back to their capsule and to pilot Michael Collins for the return home. Needless to say, Houbolt’s plan was a hit, as was the LM. Invited to witness the moon landing with von Braun and other agency officials at Mission Control in Houston, Houbolt was paid the ultimate compliment by von Braun, who’d been a hard sell early on but in time had come to support Houbolt’s idea.
“John,” von Braun told him, “it worked beautifully.”
Previous and subsequent Apollo flights had also traveled with the Lunar Module on their backs. Indeed, it was the LM that saved the astronauts of the ill-fated Apollo 13 by acting as their lifeboat until they could return home.
Houbolt, the son of Dutch immigrant farmers, had been born April 10, 1919 in Altoona, Iowa but grew up in Joliet, where he attended Joliet Junior College (Houbolt Road on the main campus is named for him) before transferring to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He would have been only 7 years old when Route 66 came through Joliet in 1926. Houbolt received his B.S. degree in civil engineering at UIUC in 1940 and his master’s in the same in 1942. In 1958 while working at NASA, he received a doctorate in technical sciences from ETH Zurich, in Switzerland.
Interestingly, Houbolt, who had been with the space agency since he’d joined its predecessor right out of graduate school back in 1942, left NASA in 1963 shortly after his idea had been formally accepted and went to work for a private-sector aeronautics firm, Aeronautical Research Associates of Princeton, Inc. Later, just as the Nixon Administration killed further manned space flights, Houbolt returned to NASA in 1976 as chief aeronautical scientist – one might say when the agency needed him most. His second stint at NASA meant he was there when the U.S. returned to space with the space shuttle program. Houbolt retired in 1985, the year before the Challenger disaster.
Houbolt eventually retired to Scarborough, Maine and lived a long life. Unfortunately, toward the end, he was in a nursing home, afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, the complications of which caused his death at age 95. He died on tax day, April 15th, which must have been why we missed it at the time.
Unlike Route 66, which has ever remained earthbound, John Houbolt’s road led skyward to the moon and stars, and he will be remembered for that – and for the big idea that led mankind to take its first baby steps out into the universe. Houbolt helped make that beginning possible. It is for us now to continue that journey without him.
Should you want to learn more about John C. Houbolt – or try your hand in ‘flying’ a lunar lander simulator – you can visit a permanent two-story interactive exhibit about him at the Joliet Area Historical Museum. It’s the perfect place to inspire any young, budding scientists, engineers, ‘techies’ or mathematicians in the family. Museum hours are 10 am to 2 pm on Mondays during the summer, 10 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 5pm on Sundays. Admission is $6 for adults and is discounted for seniors 60 and older, children, and students with ID. Remember, your museum admission includes entry to the Route 66 Welcome Center and its short films. The Joliet Area Historical Museum is located at 204 Ottawa St., Joliet, IL.
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Until next time,
your Route 66 science guide Marie