Introduction

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

Conclusion

Notes

Key Documents
(pdf version)

 

  A Voice in the Wilderness

During the late summer and early fall of 1961, Houbolt was busy preparing the formal report that the Golovin Committee had requested. Except for his "admiral's page," much of the analysis in favor of LOR was still in a loose form. So along with John Bird, Art Vogeley, Max Kurbjun, and the other rendezvous people at Langley, he set out to document their research findings and demonstrate what a complete lunar landing mission using LOR would entail. The fruit of this labor was an impressive two-volume report titled, "Manned Lunar-Landing through Use of Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous." Published by NASA Langley on 31 October 1961, this report promoted what its principal author, John O. Houbolt, called a "particularly appealing scheme" for performing the President's lunar landing mission.97

One might have thought that this extremely thorough document would have been enough, even for a zealous crusader like Houbolt, but it was not. The Heaton Committee had submitted its final report in August 1961—a report with which Houbolt, an official member of that committee, fervently disagreed. Some "arbitrary ground rules" had kept Houbolt from talking about LOR, and, when he protested, Heaton had told him to write his own minority report. If Heaton imagined he would not do it, he was wrong.

On 15 November 1961, Houbolt fired off a nine-page letter to Seamans with two different editions of his LOR "admiral's sheet" attached to it. The Langley engineer feared that the letter might cost him his job. He was skipping proper channels, a bold move for a government employee, in appealing directly to the Associate Administrator, NASA's number-two official. "Somewhat as a voice in the wilderness," Houbolt's letter opened, "I would like to pass on a few thoughts that have been of deep concern to me over recent months." He then framed his concerns in terms of questions: "Do we want to go to the moon or not?, and, if so, why do we have to restrict our thinking to a certain narrow channel?" He also asked: "Why is Nova, with its ponderous size simply just accepted, and why is a much less grandiose scheme involving rendezvous ostracized or put on the defensive?" "I fully realize that contacting you in this manner is somewhat unorthodox," Houbolt admitted, "but the issues at stake are crucial enough to us all that an unusual course is warranted."98

Houbolt's biggest complaint was against the bureaucratic guidelines that had made it impossible for the Heaton Committee to consider the merits of LOR. "This is to me nonsense," he stated frankly. "I feel very fortunate that I do not have to confine my thinking to arbitrarily set up ground rules which only serve to constrain and preclude possible equally good or perhaps better approaches." Too often, he declared, NASA has been narrowly circumscribing its thinking:

[G]round rules are set up, and then the question is tacitly asked, "Now, with these ground rules what does it take, or what is necessary to do the job?" A design begins and shortly it is realized that a booster system way beyond present plans is necessary. Then a scare factor is thrown in; the proponents of the plan suddenly become afraid of the growth problems or that perhaps they haven't computed so well, and so they make the system even larger as an "insurance" that no matter what happens the booster will be large enough to meet the contingency.

Somehow, Houbolt warned, "the fact is completely ignored that they are dealing with a ponderous development that goes far beyond the state of the art."99

In condemning the drive for huge and tremendously expensive new boosters and instead advertising the efficacy of a lunar mission involving LOR and more modest boosters, Houbolt did worry about the impression he might be making. He and Seamans had had "only occasional and limited contact" and really did not know each other that well. Houbolt realized that Seamans may feel that he was "dealing with a crank." "Do not be afraid of this," Houbolt pleaded. "The thoughts expressed here may not be stated in as diplomatic a fashion as they might be, or as I would normally try to do, but this is by choice." The most important thing was that Seamans heard his heartfelt ideas directly and "not after they have filtered through a score or more of other people, with the attendant risk they may not even reach you."100

It took two weeks for Seamans to reply to Houbolt's extraordinary letter. Seamans agreed that "it would be extremely harmful to our organization and to the country if our qualified staff were unduly limited by restrictive guidelines." He assured Houbolt that in the future NASA would be paying more attention to LOR than it had until then.101

Seamans also informed him that he had passed on his long letter with its attachments to D. Brainerd Holmes, who had just replaced Abe Silverstein as head of the Office of Manned Space Flight (recently renamed Space Flight Programs). Unlike Seamans, who apparently was not bothered by the letter being sent outside formal organizational channels, Holmes "didn't like it at all" and said so when he in turn passed the letter to George Low, his director of spacecraft and flight missions. Low was more forgiving. Although he conceded that it might have been better for Houbolt to have followed standard procedures, he found the basic message "relatively sound." He, too, felt that "the bug approach" may yet prove to be "the best way of getting to the moon" and that NASA needed to give it as much attention as any other alternative. At the end of the memo to Holmes in which he passed on these feelings, Low recommended that Houbolt be invited to Washington to present in detail Langley's plan for a manned lunar landing via LOR. Low also suggested that Houbolt be a member of Holmes's staff.102

That never happened, but another person who did join Holmes's staff at this point, Dr. Joseph F. Shea, eventually played a major role in supporting Houbolt's ideas and making the future decision in favor of LOR. A 35-year-old Ph.D. in electrical engineering, Shea arrived at NASA during the first week of January 1962 and became Holmes's deputy director for spaceflight systems. From 1956 to 1959, this energetic engineer from the Bronx had served as the systems engineer at Bell Laboratories for a radio guidance project involving the Titan I rocket. In 1959 he moved to General Motors, where he ran the advanced development operation for its A.C. Sparkplug Division. His major achievement in this job was winning a contract for developing an inertial guidance system for the Titan II.103

At NASA, Joe Shea found himself thrust into helping sort out the best means of accomplishing the lunar landing mission. During one of the first days in his office, Brainerd Holmes came to see him, with his copy of Houbolt's letter in hand. Shea perused the long letter and followed Holmes to Seamans's office. Seamans asked him whether he thought there was anything to Houbolt's message. After an unsure response, Seamans advised the young systems engineer that NASA really did not know how it was going to the Moon. Shea answered tactfully, "I was beginning to get the same suspicion.104

"Shea didn't know much about what was going on," Houbolt remembers, but quickly he became informed within days of the meeting with Seamans and Holmes about the Houbolt letter, Shea was at Langley for a private conversation with Houbolt and for a general briefing attended by Langley management and the leadership of the STG. Going into the meeting, if Shea had a preference for any one lunar mission mode, it was a weak one for Earth-orbit rendezvous. But, especially after reading Houbolt's letter to Seamans and knowing that Seamans was sympathetic to it, Shea was not against the other options. Shea was an open-minded man who "prided himself on going wherever the data took him."105

And the data led him toward LOR. When Houbolt finished his much-practiced pitch, the receptive Shea admitted that the analysis looked "pretty good." He then turned to Gilruth, Faget, and other members of the STG and asked them politely whether they, too, had been thinking along the lines of LOR. Having heard about the general skepticism toward Houbolt's ideas, Shea expected a negative reaction, but he did not get it. Instead, the STG leaders responded in a mildly positive way that signified to Shea, as the discussion continued, that "actually, they had been doing some more thinking about lunar-orbit rendezvous and, as a matter of fact, they were beginning to think it was a good idea."106

Shea returned to Washington convinced that LOR was a viable option for Apollo and that the next step for NASA was to award a contract for an even more detailed study of its potential. On 1 March 1962, eight days after astronaut John Glenn's historic three-orbit flight in Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7, NASA awarded Tom Dolan's Chance-Vought Corporation, the firm that had been one of the original proponents of the LOR concept, the contract to study spacecraft rendezvous.107 At Langley on 29 March, a group of researchers led by Houbolt briefed a Chance-Vought team on the center's LOR research and mission plan.108 On 2 and 3 April, Shea presented LOR as a possible mission mode for Apollo in a headquarters meeting that was attended by representatives of all the NASA centers.109

The final decision to select LOR for Apollo was in the making.

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