August 17, 2000
Headquarters, Washington, DC
Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX
Dr. Robert Rowe Gilruth, an aerospace scientist, engineer, and a pioneer of the American space program during the glory days of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, is dead after a lengthy illness. He was 86.
During his forty-year career with NASA and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), Dr. Gilruth led many of the nation’s leading flight research and human space flight operations.
In 1961, Dr. Gilruth was named director of the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), in Houston, TX. That complex would later become known as the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center.
"Gilruth’s management style developed the best minds in the space program into the finest organization of its time," said Dr. Christopher Kraft Jr., who served as deputy director of the Manned Spacecraft Center and director of Flight Operations during Gilruth’s tenure.
"There were many heroes during the early days of the space program, but Bob Gilruth was the most respected of them all and, particularly, by those who knew what it took to reach the goals that were established," added Dr. Kraft. "Personally, I had a higher regard for Gilruth than any other person in my lifetime."
A specialist in flight research, Dr. Gilruth organized an engineering team in 1945 to investigate experimental rocket-powered aircraft, which later became the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD) and led to the creation of NACA’s Wallops Island launching range.
In 1952, Dr. Gilruth was appointed assistant director of the Langley Laboratory responsible for investigations in high-temperature structures and dynamics loads, and for hypersonic aerodynamics research at Wallops Island.
Dr. Gilruth’s focus suddenly shifted from rocket-powered planes to spacecraft when the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. "I can recall watching the sunlight reflect off of Sputnik as it passed over my home on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia," Dr. Gilruth said in 1972. "It put a new sense of value and urgency on things we had been doing. When one month later the dog, Laika, was placed in orbit in Sputnik II, I was sure that the Russians were planning for man-in-space."
When NASA was chartered in 1958, Dr. Gilruth became director of the Space Task Group at Langley. That group comprised Dr. Gilruth and 34 other Langley employees. They worked in seemingly ad hoc fashion during the next three years but, according to Dr. Gilruth, came up with all the basic principles of Project Mercury, including the conical, blunt-ended capsule, qualifications for astronauts, launch criteria and mission operation procedures.
Later, at the MSC, more than 1,400 employees worked in a dozen locations around Houston, including shopping centers, apartment complexes and vacant stores, while a 1,600-acre cattle pasture south of the city was transformed into what Dr. Gilruth called, "… the free world’s largest and most advanced research and development center devoted to manned space flight."
During his 10-year tenure as MSC director, Dr. Gilruth directed 25 manned space flights, including Alan Shepard’s first Mercury flight in May 1961, the first lunar landing by Apollo 11 in July 1969, the dramatic rescue of Apollo 13 in 1970, through the Apollo 15 mission in July 1971.
"There is no question that without Bob Gilruth there would not have been a Mercury, Gemini, or an Apollo program," George Low, director of the Apollo lunar landing program, once commented during an interview. "He built in terms of what he felt was needed to run a manned space flight program… it is clear to all who have been associated with him that he has been the leader of all that is manned space flight in this country."
"His courage to explore the unknown, his insistence on following strict scientific procedures, and his technical expertise directly contributed to the ultimate success of the American manned space program and the landing of a man on the moon," said NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin.
After retiring as MSC director in January 1972, he served as director of key personnel development at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. When he retired in December 1973, he became a consultant for the space agency.
Dr. Gilruth was born Oct. 8, 1913, in Nashwauk, MN. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in aerospace engineering in 1935 and a master’s degree in 1936 from the University of Minnesota, and joined NACA after graduation.
When he wasn’t contemplating trips to the moon, Dr. Gilruth headed for Galveston Bay near the space center. An avid boater, he built the first successful sailing hydrofoil system and participated in many hydrofoil projects.
He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Gilruth was named an honorary fellow in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a fellow in the American Astronautical Society, an honorary fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, and a member of the International Academy of Astronautics.
Dr. Gilruth has been honored with the highest awards given by the aerospace industry and academia -- most notable are the Sylvanus Albert Reed Award from the Institute of Aerospace Sciences, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Great Living American Award, the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim International Astronautics Award of the International Academy of Astronautics, American Society of Mechanical Engineers Award, the City of New York Medal of Honor, Spirit of St. Louis Medal by the American Society of Engineers, several NASA Distinguished Service Medals and the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Service.
Dr. Gilruth also received the prestigious Goddard Memorial Trophy of the National Rocket Club, the Louis W. Hill Space Transportation Award, the Reed Aeronautics Award and the National Aeronautical Association and National Aviation Club’s Robert J. Collier Trophy for "… the greatest achievement in aeronautics and astronautics in America."
He was awarded honorary doctorate degrees from the University of Minnesota, the Indiana Institute of Technology, George Washington University, Michigan Technological University, and New Mexico State University. Dr. Gilruth became one of the first people installed in the National Space Hall of Fame.
The Gilruth family plans a private memorial service. Expressions of sympathy may be made to the Evans-Gilruth Foundation, 7076 Glanamman Way, Warrenton, VA 20187.
NOTE TO EDITORS: Past interviews with Dr. Robert Gilruth may be found at:
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