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)


  Mounting Frustration

Everything that happened in early 1961 reinforced John Houbolt's belief that NASA was dismissing the LOR concept without giving it due consideration. On 20 January, he gave another long rendezvous talk at NASA headquarters. In this briefing, he displayed analysis showing a scenario for a lunar landing using Saturn rockets and outlined a simplified rendezvous scheme that had been worked out by Art Vogeley and Lindsay J. Lina of the guidance and control branch of Langley's Aero-Space Mechanics Division. He also mentioned some preliminary Langley ideas for developing fixed-base simulators by which to study the requirements for lunar orbit, landing, and rendezvous.58 Like so many of his earlier presentations, it was received passively, without much enthusiasm. On 27–28 February, NASA held an intercenter meeting on rendezvous in Washington, but no presentation on LOR was made by Houbolt or anyone else. As if by a political consensus, the subject was not even raised. This absence prompted one concerned headquarters official, Bernard Maggin from the Office of Aeronautical and Space Research, to write Houbolt a memo a few days later in which he commented on the lack of consideration for LOR by NASA, especially by the STG.59

Politics, of an institutional sort, were involved in the unfolding lunar landing mission mode debate. The people and organizations involved in the building of the big rockets were interested in direct ascent and even in Earth-orbit rendezvous. That type of rendezvous, although not requiring the super-big Nova booster, would still require two or more big Saturns per mission. Abe Silverstein, the director of the Office of Space Flight Programs at NASA headquarters, was working primarily from his experience as the former head of Lewis Research Center, which was the old NACA propulsion research laboratory now heavily involved in rocket development. Wernher von Braun had to be thinking about the best interests of his Marshall Space Flight Center, which was primarily responsible at that time for developing the Saturn family of launch vehicles. What then were the politics? They centered around the concern over where the work for the overall lunar program was going to be performed. Was it to be conducted primarily by the people and organizations capable of building, managing, and launching very big rockets? By von Braun's team in Huntsville, which would need two to eight Saturn 1-class boosters to get enough weight up into Earth orbit to get to the Moon and back without having to perform LOR?60 Or by somebody else?

For the most part, Langley management, with no such vested interest, sat on the "sidelines." No matter which mission mode was implemented, its researchers and wind tunnels would have plenty of work to support the program.61

In some articles and history books on Project Apollo, the LOR concept has been called a pet concept of the Langley Research Center. That was not at all the case. Even within Langley, LOR was embraced only by a small but vocal minority. Langley management did not support LOR until after the STG and the rest of NASA did. The personal opinion of Center Director Floyd Thompson, as well as that of most of his senior people, mirrored that of the STG: LOR was too complicated and risky. It was better to use direct ascent or Earth-orbit rendezvous.62

Houbolt was a brilliant engineering analyst—and an energetic, persistent, and often eloquent advocate of the causes he espoused—but he was not an overly shrewd behind-the-scenes player of institutional politics. Faced with the impasse of early 1961, his first instinct was simply to find more sound and logical retorts to the criticisms he had been hearing. With the help of Brown, Vogeley, Michael, Bird, Kurbjun, and a few others, he developed more elaborate and detailed studies of "his" lunar landing mission, along with detailed weight-savings analyses. Somehow, he felt, there had to be a way to circumvent the problem and convince the agency that it was making a big mistake in dismissing LOR.

On 19 April 1961, he was to give another briefing on rendezvous to the STG. Hoping to package his argument more convincingly, he turned to the use of the so-called "admiral's page." This was the established Navy practice of using a short, visually convenient executive summary so that "the admiral" would not have to "wade through the morass" of a long report. For his STG briefing, Houbolt placed sixteen pages worth of charts, data plots, drawings, and outlined analyses—taken from his own analysis as well as material supplied by Langley's Bird, Kurbjun, and Vogeley—onto one seventeen-by-twenty-two-inch foldout sheet. The title of his foldout was, "Manned Lunar Landing Via Rendezvous," and its cover included a closeup telescopic photograph of the Moon. A number of the important people attending the meeting received a copy of the printed circular and could follow along from box to box.63

As had been the case in Houbolt's earlier presentations, this one also addressed both Earth-orbit rendezvous and LOR, but it clearly stated a preference for LOR. In this talk, however, he advocated, for the first time, two specific projects for which he supplied project names and acronyms. He called the first ("Project 1") MORAD ("Manned Orbital Rendezvous and Docking"). This was his old idea for a modest flight "experiment" as a follow-on to Mercury that would "establish confidence" in spaceflight rendezvous techniques—a small payload from a Scout rocket serving as a target vehicle for a maneuvering Mercury capsule in the Earth’s orbit. He called the second ("Project 2") MALLIR ("Manned Lunar Landing Involving Rendezvous"). It was this project, naturally, that contained the essence of the controversial LOR scheme.64

The last box of the foldout contained Houbolt's recommendations for "Immediate Action Required." For MORAD, he wanted NASA to give a quick "go-ahead" so that Langley could proceed with a work statement before issuing a study contract by industry. For MALLIR, he wanted NASA "to delegate responsibility to the Space Task Group" so that the STG would have to give "specific and accelerated consideration" to the possibility of including rendezvous as part of Project Apollo. In response to the STG's apparent resistance to his rendezvous ideas and its current discretionary freedom to treat rendezvous as part of Apollo on a "will also consider" basis, Houbolt wanted a NASA directive that made rendezvous integral to an accepted project. In other words, he was asking for something that would make the STG, finally, give rendezvous the attention that it merited. "I simply wanted people to study the problems and look at [them], and then make a judgment, but they wouldn't even do that," Houbolt remembers with some of his old frustration. "It was that strange a position."65

Nothing immediately resulted from either of his proposals. Again, the reaction seemed to him mostly negative, as if the STG still wanted no part of his ideas. His frustration mounted. "I could never find a real answer to why they wouldn't even consider it," Houbolt laments. Perhaps it was the "not-invented-here" syndrome. Perhaps it was just because he was an "outsider" who was "rocking the boat on their own thinking, and they didn't want anybody to do that."66 Or perhaps, looking at it psychologically, the STG was not prepared to think seriously about such an incredibly bold and seemingly treacherous idea when they were not even sure they could make their own—perhaps more credible, but still difficult—Mercury program a complete success. In other words, Mercury "was proving so troublesome that rendezvous, however simple in theory, seemed very far away." Houbolt was never sure.67

At this April 1961 briefing, however, a solitary STG engineer did demonstrate a clear and exceptional interest in Houbolt's rendezvous analysis. James Chamberlin approached Houbolt after the meeting and asked him for an extra copy of the foldout sheet and "anything else he had on rendezvous." Interestingly, both Houbolt and Chamberlin recall Chamberlin telling him that he had known about Langley's rendezvous work but that this was the first time he had heard any of the details about the lunar orbit version.68 One might indeed wonder then how widely the information from Houbolt's previous talks had spread within the STG. Perhaps it is significant that Chamberlin was not one of Gilruth's old associates from the NACA. He was one of the relative newcomers—and a very talented one (Chamberlin had been chief of design for the Avro Arrow aircraft, an advanced airplane cancelled by the Canadian government)—whom the STG had recruited from Canada in late 1959.

to the next page --->