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Dr. Kurt H. Debus
Former Director
1962 - 1974
John F. Kennedy Space Center


+View 'Dr. Kurt H. Debus: Launching a Vision'

Dr. Kurt H. Debus was the first director of NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Fla., from July 1962 until November 1974.

He came to the United States in 1945 to participate in ballistic missile systems development programs of the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss, Texas. In 1950, the group was relocated to Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Ala., which became the focal point of the Army's rocket and space projects. The rockets were launched from Cape Canaveral.

Debus supervised the development and construction of rocket launch facilities at Cape Canaveral for the Redstone, Jupiter, Jupiter C, Juno and Pershing military configurations beginning in 1952 and continuing through 1960. The organization he directed was transferred from the Army to NASA. Beginning in 1961, he directed the design, development and construction of NASA's Apollo/Saturn facilities on Cape Canaveral and the adjacent John F. Kennedy Space Center.

He launched the first U.S. ballistic missile, the Redstone, on August 20, 1953. Subsequently, he launched the first U.S. missiles carrying atomic warheads in the Pacific Ocean area during a series of tests, and supervised developmental firings of Jupiter, Pershing, and other Army rockets.

The launch organization he personally directed conducted more than 150 launches of military missiles and space vehicles, which included the first U.S. space probe that orbited the Sun, Pioneer IV, March 3, 1959; the first flight of primates in a Jupiter rocket, December 13, 1958; the first Mercury program primate January 31, 1961; the first two manned Mercury missions, Freedom 7, May 5, 1961, and Liberty Bell 7, July 21, 1961; four Mercury orbital missions during 1962 and 1963; 10 successful Saturn 1s; and eight successful Saturn 1Bs, including Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission on an 11-day Earth-orbital flight in October 1968; and three manned Skylab missions.

Debus' organization successfully launched 13 Saturn Vs: Apollo 4, the first unmanned flight of the 363-foot, 7.5-million-pound thrust launch vehicle, November 9, 1967; Apollo 6, an unmanned Apollo/Saturn V, April 4, 1968; Apollo 8, that carried the first men to lunar orbit, December 21, 1968; Apollo 9, the first manned test of the Lunar Module, March 3, 1969; Apollo 10, in which men orbited the Moon in the Lunar and Command/Service Modules, May 18, 1969; Apollo 11, which landed the first men on the Moon, July 16, 1969; Apollo 12, which landed the second U.S. astronaut team on the Moon, November 14, 1969; Apollo 13, which circled the Moon and returned to Earth; Apollos 14, 15, 16 and 17 which continued lunar exploration; and the Skylab Orbital Workshop.

In October 1965, he became responsible for NASA unmanned launch operations at the Eastern and Western Test Ranges. These operations included launching of meteorological and communications satellites, and lunar and planetary space probes.

Born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1908, Debus received all his schooling in that country. He attended Darmstadt University where he earned his initial and advanced degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering. He served as a graduate assistant on the faculty for electrical engineering and high-voltage engineering while studying for his Master's degree. In 1939, he obtained his engineering Doctorate with a thesis on surge voltages and was appointed assistant professor at the university. During this period, he became actively engaged in the rocket research program at Peenemunde.

In recognition of his unique accomplishments, a number of honors were conferred upon Dr. Debus. He held the U.S. Army's highest civilian decoration, the Exceptional Civilian Service Medal; the Scott Gold Medal of the American Ordnance Association's Missile and Astronautics division and NASA's Outstanding Leadership Award. In July 1965, he was awarded the first Pioneer of Wind Rose Award, order of the Diamond, by the International Committee of Aerospace Activities for his historical contributions to launch technology and science. In February 1967, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by Rollins College. He was also named co-winner of the American Astronautical Society's Space Flight Award for 1967. In 1968, he was awarded an Outstanding Achievement Award from the U.S. Treasury Department, and in 1969, he received the U.S. Treasury Patriotic Service Award. In January 1969, he received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal for Apollo 8. In June 1969, he received the Career Service Award of the National Civil Service League and the Daughters of the American Revolution Americanism Medal. In September 1969, he received his second Distinguished Service Medal from NASA for Apollo 11, man's first landing on the Moon. In December 1969, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Engineering Science degree by Florida Technological University. He was elected to the National Space Hall of Fame in 1969. He received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the Florida Institute of Technology in September 1970. He was awarded the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Hermann-Oberth Gesellschaft Honor Ring in 1971. In February 1974, he was signally honored as recipient of the Louis W. Hill Space Transportation Award, presented by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

He was a life member of the American Ordnance Association; a fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; honorary member, Instrument Society of America; advisory member, Marquis Biographical Library Society; honorary member, Hermann-Rakententechnik and Raumrahrt, e.V.; ex-officio member of the Florida Council of 100 from 1969-1971, and a member of the Advisory Board of the British Interplanetary Society. He was a member of NASA's Management Council for the Office of Manned Space Flight, the Senior Management Council for the Office of Space Science, and the Applications Board.

Debus retired in November 1974, and lived in Cocoa Beach with his wife, Gay. They had two daughters, Siegrid and Ute. He died on Oct. 10, 1983, at the age of 74.

February 1987

Biographies - Former Employees