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)


  Houbolt's First Letter to Seamans

Six days before Kennedy's historic announcement, and oblivious that it was coming, John Houbolt sent "a hurried non-edited and limited note" of three single-spaced pages to Robert Seamans at NASA headquarters. Confident from past meetings that Associate Administrator Seamans was greatly interested in the subject of rendezvous, Houbolt took the liberty of going above several organizational layers and around his superiors to communicate with him directly.

His message was straightforward and not overly passionate. The situation with respect to the development of new launch vehicles was "deplorable"; the Saturns "should undergo major structural modifications," and there was "no committed booster plan" beyond Saturn. Furthermore, NASA was still not attending to the use of rendezvous in the planned performance of the Apollo mission. "I do not wish to argue" whether "the direct way" or "the rendezvous way" is best, Houbolt reassured Seamans. But "because of the lag in launch vehicle developments," it seemed to him that "the only way that will be available to us in the next few years is the rendezvous way." For this reason alone, it was "mandatory" that "rendezvous be as much in future plans as any item, and that it be attacked vigorously."72 If NASA continued to dismiss LOR totally as it had been, someday there were going to be sorry NASA engineers.

If Houbolt had known that an ad hoc task group at NASA headquarters was at that moment concluding that rendezvous had no place in the lunar landing program, his letter to Seamans would have carried a higher sense of urgency. But there is nothing in his letter to suggest that Houbolt knew anything about the meetings of the so-called Fleming Committee. Established by Seamans on 2 May, the job of this committee was to determine, in only four weeks, whether a lunar landing by astronauts was in fact possible and how much it would cost. Chaired by NASA's assistant administrator for programs, William A. Fleming, who—unlike George Low—was known to be neutral on the ideas of a lunar landing and the method for doing it, this committee eventually recommended a lunar landing program based on a three-stage Nova. In essence, the Fleming Committee "avoided the question of rendezvous versus direct ascent." Seeing "no reason to base its study on a risky and untried alternative"—and apparently not seeing with equal clarity that going to the Moon with a huge and unproven launch vehicle was also "risky and untried"—the committee spent all its time trying to choose between solid-fuel and liquid-fuel propellants for the Nova stages.73

Houbolt and the other LOR advocates at Langley would have been dismayed. To them, it had been clear for some time that developing the rendezvous concept was "the obvious thing" to do before a lunar mission. But to so many others, it was still an absurdly complicated and sporty proposition.

Still others, such as Bob Seamans, were not sure what to think. On 25 May, after hearing President Kennedy's speech, Seamans appointed yet another ad hoc committee "to assess a wide variety of possible ways for executing a manned lunar landing." Whether Houbolt's letter of six days earlier played any major direct role in prompting Seamans to create this new committee, to be chaired by Bruce T. Lundin, an Associate Director at the Lewis Research Center, is not certain. But it surely contributed to it, as two pieces of circumstantial evidence seem to indicate. (Houbolt believes that Seamans created the Lundin Committee specifically because of his letter. "The story I got [from somebody else at NASA headquarters] was that my letter jolted Seamans, and he got up at five o'clock in the morning, got on the phone, called several people and said, 'Be at my office at seven o'clock.' . . . And then they formed the Lundin Committee." There are no documents to support Houbolt's version of the story, but based on what Seamans has said about the formation of the Lundin Committee, there is no doubt that Houbolt's letter did contribute directly to its establishment—perhaps not as exclusively as Houbolt has heard. [Houbolt interview with the author, 24 August 1989, Williamsburg, Virginia, copy of transcript, p. 31.]) First, in explaining why a new task force was necessary, Seamans pointed out to his directors of Advanced Research Programs (Ira H. Abbott) and Launch Vehicle Programs (Don R. Ostrander) that the Fleming Committee was finding it necessary "to restrict its considerations to a limited number of techniques by which it is feasible to accomplish the mission in the shortest possible time." Consequently, there were "numerous other approaches"—and he specifically mentioned the use of rendezvous—that were not currently being assessed. Second, Seamans wrote back to Houbolt on 2 June, thanking him for his comments and reassuring the distressed Langley researcher that "the problems that concern you are of great concern to the whole agency." NASA headquarters had just organized "some intensive study programs," Seamans informed him, without mentioning the Fleming or Lundin committees by name. These programs "will provide us a base for decisions."74

It is not true, as some historians have said, that Seamans made sure that Houbolt was on the Lundin Committee.75 Houbolt was not an official member of that committee; one of Floyd Thompson's assistants, Laurence K. Loftin, Jr., was Langley's representative, although he apparently did not attend all the meetings. But Houbolt did meet with and talk to the committee several times; in fact, in his view, he was "the real Langley representative" because Loftin did not attend as regularly as he did.76

The idea behind the Lundin Committee, at least as Seamans had expressed it, was to take an open-minded look into the alternative "modes" for getting to the Moon, primarily those involving "mission staging by rendezvous" and "alternative Nova vehicles." From its initial meeting, however, that idea seems to have been seriously compromised. Larry Loftin, who attended the opening meeting in early June 1961, remembers that Seamans came in the first day and "sort of gave us our marching orders." Then Abe Silverstein, director of the Office of Space Flight Programs at NASA headquarters, came in to address the members. Silverstein said:

Well, look fellas, I want you to understand something. I've been right most of my life about things, and if you guys are going to talk about rendezvous, any kind of rendezvous, as a way of going to the Moon, forget it. I've heard all those schemes and I don't want to hear any more of them, because we're not going to the Moon using any of those schemes.

And with those words of warning and damnation, which completely violated the reason for having the committee in the first place, the usually masterful but, in this case, self-righteous Silverstein "stomped out of the room."77

To its credit, the Lundin Committee disregarded Silverstein's admonition and instead considered a broad range of different rendezvous schemes. With a complete analysis of the rendezvous problems by Houbolt and assorted insights from invited analysts both from inside and outside NASA, the group studied mission profiles involving rendezvous in Earth orbit, in transit to the Moon, in lunar orbit before landing, in lunar orbit after takeoff from the Moon, and in both Earth and lunar orbit. It even considered the fantastic idea of a "lunar-surface rendezvous." This involved launching a fuel cache and a few other unmanned components of a return spacecraft to the Moon's surface—a payload of about 5,000 pounds—and then landing astronauts separately in a second spacecraft whose fuel supply would be exhausted just getting there. The notion, as absurd as it now sounds, was that the landed astronauts would find the previously deposited hardware (homing beacons previously landed as part of the unmanned Surveyor program were to make pinpoint landings possible) and then assemble and fuel a new spacecraft for the return trip. Television monitoring equipment would check everything out before sending astronauts from the Earth to the landing area via the second spacecraft.

Houbolt thought this was "the most harebrained idea" he had ever heard. In the committee's final "summary rating" of the comparative value of the different rendezvous concepts, however, lunar-surface rendezvous finished only slightly lower than did his LOR. One anonymous committee member (most likely the Jet Propulsion Laboratory representative) even picked lunar-surface rendezvous as his first choice.78

As Houbolt remembers bitterly, the Lundin Committee "turned down LOR cold." In the final rating made by the six voting committee members (Loftin voted, Houbolt did not), LOR finished a distant third—with no first place votes, only one second, two thirds, two fourths, and one fifth or last place. Far ahead of it were two different low-Earth-orbit rendezvous schemes, the first one using two to three Saturn C-3 boosters and the other involving a Saturn C-1 plus the Nova. Both concepts were strongly favored by NASA Marshall, which by this time had embraced the idea of Earth-orbit rendezvous for its potential technological applications to the development of an orbiting space station.79

Houbolt was crushed when he heard the results. Having LOR placed at the same level of disdain as the ridiculous lunar-surface rendezvous was especially insulting. He had given the Lundin Committee his full-blown pitch, complete with the foldout sheet and slides. "They'd say, 'That sounds pretty good, John,' but then the next morning the same guys would come up and say, 'John, that's no good. We don't like it at all.'" For Houbolt, it was a perverse reaction to figure out. There would be an initial favorable reaction, but then "overnight, completely negative."80 Loftin reflects back on the general fear and pessimism about LOR that ultimately ruled over the committee:

We thought it was too risky. Remember in 1961 we hadn't even orbited Glenn yet. We certainly had done no rendezvous yet. And to put this poor bastard out there, separate him in a module, let him go down to the surface and then fire him back up and expect him to rendezvous. He didn't get a second chance; it had to be dead right the first time. I mean that just seemed like a bit much.

Moreover, Loftin and the others believed—incorrectly—that there was no real way of performing a rescue mission using LOR. In Earth's orbit, if things did not go right, then NASA might still be able to save its astronauts. In his gut, Loftin felt along with the others that the idea of LOR was just "kind of absurd."81 It was an uneasy feeling that made it difficult for the Lundin Committee to acknowledge that all the other options entailed more complicated problems.

As discouraging as everything had been for John Houbolt up to this point, things quickly got worse. On 20 June, ten days after the Lundin Committee delivered its recommendations, Bob Seamans formed yet another task force, chaired by his assistant director of launch vehicle programs, Donald H. Heaton. Following up on the summary ratings and recommendations of the Lundin Committee, Seamans asked Heaton's group to focus on Earth-orbit rendezvous, establishing the program plans and the supporting resources needed to accomplish the manned lunar landing mission using rendezvous techniques.82 Trying to stay within those guidelines, Heaton refused to let Houbolt, an official member of his committee (Langley's W. Hewitt Phillips also served on it), even talk about LOR.

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A high-angle view of the Saturn V launch vehicle that was used for the Apollo 15 mission to the Moon in 1971.