|AIAA Mourns the Death of Honorary Fellow John C. Houbolt
Was Primary Advocate for Lunar Orbit Rendezvous Concept That Helped Make Moon Landing Possible
May 1, 2014 – Reston, Va. – The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) mourns the death of AIAA Honorary Fellow John C. Houbolt. Houbolt’s stalwart advocacy of the lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR) concept made the Apollo 11 moon landing possible. Houbolt passed away on April 15, in Scarborough, Maine; he was 95 years old.
“We mourn the passing of John Houbolt, who was a tireless advocate for the lunar orbit rendezvous concept that was used on Apollo,” said AIAA Immediate Past President Mike Griffin. “Houbolt’s tenacity in endorsing the superiority of LOR over other mission design stands as a testament to one person’s ability to champion a cause through to success, even when all seems lost. While we are saddened by his loss, we are forever grateful that he saw what others did not—a truly elegant solution to landing on the moon—allowing our nation to make history for all of humanity.”
Houbolt began his career with NASA, when it was still the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Working at the Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., in 1961, Houbolt became the primary spokesperson for a group of engineers and scientists committed to the idea of a lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR) concept for a moon landing. The LOR concept called for a two-piece spacecraft to travel to the moon, the main craft and a smaller lunar landing module. Once above the moon, the lunar module and its crew would leave the main spacecraft, descend to the lunar surface, carry out the mission. The crew would reenter the module and ascend from the lunar surface for a rendezvous with the main spacecraft after which the unit would return to Earth. Facing stiff resistance to the idea from his superiors, including Wernher von Braun and Christopher Kraft, Houbolt took the unprecedented step of directly appealing to NASA incoming associate administrator Robert C. Seamans Jr., to support the LOR concept. Intrigued by the idea, Seamans ordered a thorough technical review, and in 1962, after winning von Braun’s support LOR became the procedure for the lunar landings. NASA later admitted that without the LOR concept, “the United States may still have landed men on the moon, but it probably would not have happened by the end of the 1960’s as directed by Kennedy.”
In 1963, Houbolt left NASA to take a position with Aeronautical Research Associates, in Princeton, N.J., subsequently returning to NASA in 1976 as chief aeronautical scientist at Langley Research Center. He retired from NASA in 1985.
Houbolt’s honors include the 1972 AIAA Dryden Lectureship in Research Award and the very first AIAA Structures, Structural Dynamics & Materials Award, presented in 1968. His other honors include a 1963 NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal, the 2000 American Society of Mechanical Engineers Spirit of St. Louis Medal, and the 2007 Illini Achievement Award from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Houbolt was elected to the National Academy of Engineers in 1990.