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John C. Houbolt

John C. Houbolt
John C. Houbolt
Credit: NASA

Dr. John C Houbolt (1919 – 2014) successfully advocated for the lunar-orbit-rendezvous concept that proved to be the vital link in the nation’s successful effort to place men on the moon.

Dr. Houbolt was born in Altoona, Iowa, and grew up in Joliet, Illinois, where he built model airplanes and competed in flight contests, forming a lifelong love of aeronautics. He attended Joliet Junior-College before transferring to the University of Illinois, where he received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1940 and a master’s degree in the same subject in 1942. 

He joined the NACA Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (LMAL) in 1942, as an assistant civil engineer in the Structures Research Division. He served in the Army Air Corps from 1944 to 1946. In 1949, he served six months as an exchange scientist at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, England. As an employee of the NACA, in 1956 he received the Rockefeller Public Service Award, to undertake graduate study in the fields of aeroelasticity and aerothermodynamics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich (ETH), where he earned a doctorate degree in technical sciences in 1957. Upon return to Langley, he was made Assistant Chief of the Dynamic Loads Division, and became Associate Chief in 1960. In 1962, he was promoted to Chief of the Theoretical Mechanics Division (renamed the Space Mechanics Division in 1963).

From 1945 to 1963, he taught a variety of courses in mathematics and in the disciplines of aeronautics and spaceflight, for both the University of Virginia and Virginia Polytechnic Institute Graduate Extension Divisions.

Houbolt’s technical career was extremely diversified, including studies of dynamic loads and aeroelasticity of aircraft and space vehicles, and special problems of space flight. He became deeply involved in theoretical analyses of the phenomenon known as propeller whirl flutter, which had caused the catastrophic crashes of early models of the Lockheed Electra propeller-driven civil transport in the early 1960s.

Dr. Houbolt is most-widely recognized for his persistent and tenacious advocacy of the lunar-orbit-rendezvous (LOR) approach for carrying men to the surface of the moon. In the LOR approach, a spacecraft would be inserted into orbit around the moon, and a smaller lander would be dispersed to land on the moon’s surface; followed by a rendezvous with the orbiting craft for a return to Earth at the end of the mission. The question of how to most efficiently put a man on the moon was addressed at Langley within a small group working for Clinton E. “Clint” Brown, who managed the Theoretical Mechanics Division in 1958. As interest in lunar and planetary missions increased, the group had in-depth discussions of the LOR concept. Even today, controversy exists as to who actually conceived the concept of lunar orbit rendezvous. William H. “Bill” Michael, Jr., who had made studies of a “parking orbit” concept, which he shared with Brown and others, is viewed by some as the originator of the LOR concept. However, Houbolt claimed to have independently arrived at the same concept. 

In any event, the LOR concept met stiff opposition within technical and political ranks. The competitor concept, referred to as “direct ascent,” required construction of a mega-sized launch vehicle called Nova; a concept that was initially favored by Werner von Braun. There is no doubt as to the identity of LOR’s most vociferous supporter — Dr. John Houbolt. He became the most active and vocal advocate for the LOR approach, taking on the task of convincing the naysayers — within Langley, at the highest levels of NASA, Congress, and industry — that LOR was the only technique that would enable meeting the goal set by President Kennedy of landing on the moon before the end of the decade of the 60s.

Dr. Houbolt deemed the LOR concept so important that he risked his reputation and career by aggressively promoting the concept. He took on the bureaucracy, and after significant controversy, including Congressional hearings; the LOR plan was eventually adopted, in 1962. Receiving the announcement of the selection, Houbolt’s supervisor, Ed Garrick, congratulated him by commenting “I can safely say I’m shaking hands with the man who single-handedly saved the government $20 billion.” His persistence had resulted in the critical decision that ultimately ensured the success of the Apollo Program. 

In 1963, Dr. Houbolt was awarded the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal for his work on the LOR concept. The award cited his “Foresight, perseverance, and incisive theoretical analysis of the concept of lunar orbit rendezvous, revealing the important engineering and economic advantages that led to its adoption as a central element in the U.S. manned lunar exploration.” He was the first recipient of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ (AIAA) Structures, Structural Dynamics, & Materials Award in 1968, and in 1972 was awarded the AIAA Dryden Research Lectureship Award. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1990, and was awarded the Spirit of St. Louis Medal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 2000. He was also awarded honorary doctorates by ETH Zurich in 1975; by Clarkson University in 1990; and by the University of Illinois in 2005. In 2007, the University of Illinois awarded him the Illini Achievement Award, their highest honor.
In 1963, after the lunar-orbit-rendezvous technique was adopted, Houbolt left NASA to become a Senior Vice President and Senior Consultant with Aeronautical Research Associates of Princeton, Inc. (ARAP). In that position, he was a consultant on aeronautics, astronautics and advanced technology. He specialized in the fields of aeroelasticity, structures, flight mechanics, systems analysis, and guidance and control.

Dr. Houbolt returned to the Langley Research Center in 1976 as its Chief Aeronautical Scientist, providing technical consultation to Langley and other NASA organizations. He was the author of more than 120 technical publications during his career.

He retired from NASA in October 1985 and served in the role of private consultant. His papers are collected at the University of Illinois Archives.

Dr. Houbolt served on many aeronautics and space flight committees, including accident investigations, and in numerous capacities for the AIAA where he was an Honorary Fellow. He was an active participant in the NATO Advisory Group for Aerospace Research and Development (AGARD) for more than 20 years. He also served as a consultant over the years to the Air Force, Navy, and Army, and various commercial firms. Dr. Houbolt was a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Air Force for 20 years, and participated in a number of highly classified projects, such as the B-2 Stealth Bomber.

Dr. Houbolt married the former Mary Morris, and their 65-year marriage produced three daughters: Mary Corneilia “Neil”, Joanna, and Julie.

Dr. John Houbolt died on April 15, 2014, in Scarborough, Maine, at the age of 95. Dr. Houbolt arranged with his family to donate his brain to Massachusetts General Hospital for research into Parkinson’s disease.