Brown's Lunar Exploration Working Group

Michael's Paper on a "Parking Orbit"

The Rendezvous Committees

Houbolt's First Crusade

The Feelings Against Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous

The Space Task Group's Early Skepticism

Mounting Frustration

President Kennedy's Commitment

Houbolt's First Letter to Seamans

A Voice in the Wilderness

The LOR Decision



Key Documents
(pdf version)


  The LOR Decision (continued)

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 Langley's technical liaison officer at the Manned Spacecraft Center. Mattson maintained a small office at the Houston facility for the timely transmittal of technical information between Langley and Gilruth's recently removed STG. It was not a high-profile, management-level operation at all, nor was it supposed to be. According to the agreement between Gilruth and Langley director Floyd Thompson, Mattson was to spend most of his time with the engineers in the field who were working on the problems.116

In early 1962, sometime after the Shea briefing at Langley, Floyd Thompson 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 brought Houbolt to almost everyone with some interest in the mission mode issue. 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.117

Symbolically, on 6 February 1962, Houbolt and former Langley engineer Charles W. Matthews, now of the Manned Spacecraft Center, gave a joint presentation on rendezvous to the Manned Space Flight Management Council, 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. The two engineers compared the merits of LOR and Earth-orbit rendezvous, concluding in favor of LOR. It is worth noting that Gilruth telephoned Houbolt personally to ask him to give this talk. According to Houbolt, it was "the first concession" that Gilruth had ever made regarding LOR.118

As luck would have it, the call from Gilruth came on a Friday, the day before Houbolt and his family were to leave for a ski trip to Stowe, Vermont. Gilruth asked him if he could be in Washington on Monday to give the talk, and Houbolt—remembering how he had to make reservations at the resort three months in advance—reluctantly agreed. On Saturday he flew with his wife and children to Albany, New York, rented a car, and drove to the ski resort. He stayed the night, drove back to the airport in the morning, boarded an airplane, and was in Washington in time for the Monday morning meeting.

With the STG now firmly behind LOR, it boiled down to a contest between the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. Marshall was still a bastion for those who supported Earth-orbit rendezvous. Von Braun's people recognized two things. First, Earth-orbit rendezvous would require the development of advanced versions of Marshall's own Saturn booster. Second, the selection of Earth-orbit rendezvous for the lunar landing program would require the construction of a platform in Earth orbit that could have many other uses than for Apollo, scientific and otherwise. For this reason, space station advocates—and there were many at the Alabama facility—were enthusiastic about Earth-orbit rendezvous.119 To them, this mode of rendezvous would offer 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 altruistic decision—despite the wishes of most of his people—to support LOR. He surprised them with this shocking announcement at the end of a day-long briefing presented 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 [Earth-orbit rendezvous, 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.

The persuasive von Braun then proceeded into a long elaboration on "why we do not recommend" the direct ascent and Earth-orbit rendezvous modes and "why we do recommend the Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous Mode."120

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 that occurs in technology typically "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 little support from his own engineers.121 For closure to occur and LOR to become the mission mode for Apollo, it did not take any referendum or consensus; it simply took a decision made and stuck to in the face of any later opposition. Although some questions about his motives still need to be answered, one apparent factor above all seems to explain his shift in sentiment. Von Braun understood that it was absolutely necessary, if NASA were to meet President Kennedy's deadline, to proceed with the program—and no movement was possible until the decision about the mission mode was made. Both the Manned Spacecraft Center and Langley's John Houbolt had worked on von Braun to convert him to their side. In April 1962, Houbolt sent him several of the 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 a presentation by Houbolt at NASA headquarters. Then von Braun sent copies of the Langley papers to Hermann Koelle, in Marshall's Future Projects Office. And after he made his unexpected announcement in favor of LOR to the stunned crowd of Marshall employees in early June, von Braun reciprocated by sending Houbolt a personal copy of his remarks. This was a noteworthy personal courtesy by von Braun to the Langley engineer. In fact, the final sentence of the cover letter asked Houbolt to "please treat this confidentially (in other words, keep it to yourself), since no final decision on the mode has yet been made."122

The LOR decision was finalized in the following weeks, when the two powerful groups of converts at Houston and Huntsville, along with the original band of 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 lined up behind the concept, the NASA Manned Space Flight Management Council announced that it favored LOR on 22 June 1962. On 11 July, the agency announced that it had selected that mode for Apollo. Webb made the announcement, even though President Kennedy's science adviser, Dr. Jerome Wiesner, remained firmly opposed to LOR.123

On the day that NASA made the public announcement, John Houbolt was presenting a paper on the dynamic response of airplanes to atmospheric turbulence at a meeting of NATO's Advisory Group for Aerospace Research and Development (AGARD) in Paris.124 His division chief, Isadore E. ("Ed") Garrick, also was at the meeting. A talented applied mathematician who had been working at Langley since the 1930s (and who had assisted the NACA's great flutter theorist Theodore Theodorsen), 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 for LOR.

While at the AGARD meeting in Paris, Garrick noticed a little blurb in the overseas edition of the New York Herald Tribune about NASA's decision to proceed with 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."125

In the ensuing years, whenever the question of Houbolt's importance for the LOR decision was discussed, Garrick made it clear 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."126

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(From left to right) Wernher von Braun meets with Robert Gilruth and other high NASA officials, George Mueller and Kurt Debus, sometime in the mid-1960s. The chart on the wall is a diagram of the Apollo 8 mission.