Remembering John Houbolt: the Man Who Gave Us Lunar Orbit Rendezvous

The space community lost a colossus of the of the Apollo era last week, when John Houbolt passed away last Tuesday just five days after his 95th birthday.

Perhaps the name isn’t as familiar to many as Armstrong or Von Braun, but John Houbolt was a pivotal figure in getting us to the Moon.

Born in Altoona, Iowa on April 10th, 1919, Houbolt spent most of his youth in Joliet, Illinois. He earned a Masters degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1942 and a PhD in Technical Sciences from ETH Zurich in Switzerland in 1957. But before that, he would become a member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1942, an organization that would later become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA in 1958.

It was 1961 when Houbolt made what would be his most enduring mark on the space program. He was working as an engineer at the Langley Research Center, at a time when NASA and the United States seriously needed a win in the space race. The U.S.S.R. had enjoyed a long string of firsts, including first satellite in orbit (Sputnik 1, October 1957), first spacecraft to photograph the lunar farside (Luna 3 in October 1959) and first human in space with the launch of Yuri Gagarin aboard Vostok 1 in April 1961. A young President Kennedy would make his now famous “We choose to go to the Moon…” speech at Rice University later the next year in late 1962. Keep in mind, in U.S. astronaut John Glenn had just made his first orbital flight months before Kennedy’s speech, and total accumulated human time in space could be measured in mere hours. Unmanned Ranger spacecraft were having a tough time even getting off of the pad, and managing to crash a space probe into the Moon was considered to be a “success”. The task of sending humans “by the end of this decade” was a daunting one indeed…

NASA would soon have a mandate to sent humans to the Moon: but how could they pull it off?

Early ideas for manned lunar missions envisioned a single gigantic rocket that would head to the Moon and land, Buck Rodgers style, “fins first.” Such a rocket would have to be enormous, and carry the fuel to escape Earth’s gravity well, land and launch from the Moon, and return to Earth.

A second approach, known as Earth-orbit rendezvous, would see several launches assemble a mission in low Earth orbit and then head to the Moon. Curiously, though this was an early idea, it was never used in Apollo, though it was briefly resurrected during the now defunct Constellation Program.

Credit: NASA
Three plans to go to the Moon. Credit: NASA.

But it was a third option that intrigued Houbolt, known as Lunar Orbit Rendezvous. LOR had been proposed by rocket pioneers Yuri Kondratyuk and Hermann Oberth in 1923, but had never been seriously considered. It called for astronauts to depart the Earth in a large rocket, and instead, use a small lander designed only to land and launch from the Moon while the spacecraft for Earth return orbited overhead.

Houbolt became a staunch advocate for the idea, and spent over a year convincing NASA officials. In one famous letter to NASA associate administrator Robert Seamans, Houbolt was known to have remarked “Do we want to go to the Moon or not?”

It’s interesting to note that it was probably only in a young organization like the NASA of the early 1960s that, in Houbolt’s own words, a “voice in in the wilderness” could be heard. Had NASA become a military run organization — as many advocated for in the 1950s — a rigid chain of command could have meant that such brash ideas as Houbolt’s would have never seen the light of day. Thank scientists such as James Van Allen for promoting the idea of a civilian space program that we take for granted today.

Even then, selling LOR wasn’t easy. The idea looked preposterous: astronauts would have to learn how to undock and dock while orbiting a distant world, with no chance of rescue. There was no second chance, no backup option. Early plans called for an EVA for astronauts to enter the Lunar Module prior to descent which were later scrapped in favor of extracting it from atop the third stage and boarding internally before reaching the Moon.

Once Houbolt had sold key visionaries such as Wernher von Braun on the idea in late 1962, LOR became the way we would go to the Moon. And although Houbolt’s estimations of the mass required for the Lunar Module were off by a factor of three, the story is now the stuff of early Apollo era legend. You can see Houbolt (played by Reed Birney) and the tale of the LM and LOR in the  From Earth to the Moon episode 5 entitled “Spider”.

Credit: NASA
The ascent stage of the lunar module on approach to the command module with the Earth in the background. Credit: NASA.

Houbolt was awarded NASA’s medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement in 1963, and he was in Mission Control When Apollo 11 touched down in the Sea of Tranquility.

He passed away in a Scarborough, Maine nursing home last Tuesday, and joins other unsung visionaries of the early space program such as Mary Sherman Morgan. It’s sad to think that we may soon live in a world where those who not only walked on the Moon, but those who also sent us and knew how to get there, are no longer with us.

Thanks, John… you gave us the Moon.

Relive Apollo 9’s Moon Lander Test 45 Years Ago Through Incredible NASA Images

Hard to believe the decades fly by so fast. It was 45 years ago today that the crew of Apollo 9 took off from the Kennedy Space Center en route to a big test of the lunar module. Being March 1969, history shows that it was only about four months later when men touched the moon for the first time ever.

Getting to the moon, however, required making sure that the lunar landing craft was in tip-top shape. This was the first test of the lunar module in space. Apollo 9 astronauts Jim McDivitt, Rusty Schweickart and Dave Scott spent several days shaking out the spacecraft in the relative safety of Earth orbit.

The mission is perhaps best remembered for the first docking of “Spider” (the lunar module) and “Gumdrop” (the command module), but plenty happened during their March 3-13, 1969 mission. You can relive some of the most memorable moments of training and the mission in the gallery below. More information on the mission is available at NASA.

Apollo 9 astronauts Jim McDivitt (front) and Rusty Schweickart inside the lunar module mission simulator at the Kennedy Space Center. Apollo 9 flew in March 1969. Credit: NASA
Apollo 9 astronauts Jim McDivitt (front) and Rusty Schweickart inside the lunar module mission simulator at the Kennedy Space Center. Apollo 9 flew in March 1969. Credit: NASA
Spotlights shine on the Saturn V rocket carrying Apollo 9 prior to its launch from the Kennedy Space Center on March 3, 1969. Credit: NASA
Spotlights shine on the Saturn V rocket carrying Apollo 9 prior to its launch from the Kennedy Space Center on March 3, 1969. Credit: NASA
The Apollo 9 astronauts walk out to the vehicle that will take them out to the launch pad, hours before launch on March 3, 1969. From left: Jim McDivitt (commander), Dave Scott (command module pilot) and Rusty Schweickart (lunar module pilot). Credit: NASA
The Apollo 9 astronauts walk out to the vehicle that will take them out to the launch pad, hours before launch on March 3, 1969. From left: Jim McDivitt (commander), Dave Scott (command module pilot) and Rusty Schweickart (lunar module pilot). Credit: NASA
The launch of Apollo 9 on March 3, 1969. Credit: NASA
The launch of Apollo 9 on March 3, 1969. Credit: NASA
Apollo 9's "Spider" lunar module lies nestled in the third stage of the Saturn V rocket that carried it to space in March 1969. Credit: NASA
Apollo 9’s “Spider” lunar module lies nestled in the third stage of the Saturn V rocket that carried it to space in March 1969. Credit: NASA
Apollo 9 lunar module pilot Rusty Schweickart during a spacewalk in March 1969. Here, he was standing on the porch of the lunar module "Spider." Credit: NASA
Apollo 9 lunar module pilot Rusty Schweickart during a spacewalk in March 1969. Here, he was standing on the porch of the lunar module “Spider.” Credit: NASA
Apollo 9 lunar module pilot Rusty Schweickart during a spacewalk in March 1969. Credit: NASA
Apollo 9 lunar module pilot Rusty Schweickart during a spacewalk in March 1969. Credit: NASA
Apollo 9 commander Jim McDivitt (right) drinks from a hand water dispenser while lunar module pilot Rusty Schweickart looks on. Photo is a still from a March 1969 television broadcast. Credit: NASA
Apollo 9 commander Jim McDivitt (right) drinks from a hand water dispenser while lunar module pilot Rusty Schweickart looks on. Photo is a still from a March 1969 television broadcast. Credit: NASA
Apollo 9 commander Jim McDivitt shows off several days' beard growth during March 1969. The photo was taken in lunar module "Spider". Credit: NASA
Apollo 9 commander Jim McDivitt shows off several days’ beard growth during March 1969. The photo was taken in lunar module “Spider”. Credit: NASA
Apollo 9's lunar module "Spider" during a test in March 1969. Credit: NASA
Apollo 9’s lunar module “Spider” during a test in March 1969. Credit: NASA
Apollo 9 astronaut Dave Scott during a spacewalk from the command module in March 1969. The Mississippi River is visible in the background. Credit: NASA
Apollo 9 astronaut Dave Scott during a spacewalk from the command module in March 1969. The Mississippi River is visible in the background. Credit: NASA
A recovery helicopter picks up Apollo 9 command module "Gumdrop" and brings it to recovery ship USS Guadalcanal on March 13, 1969. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / Elizabeth Howell (photo combination)
A recovery helicopter picks up Apollo 9 command module “Gumdrop” and brings it to recovery ship USS Guadalcanal on March 13, 1969. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / Elizabeth Howell (photo combination)
The Apollo 9 astronauts await recovery from a helicopter from USS Guadalcanal on March 13, 1969. The crew included Jim McDivitt (in hatch), Rusty Schweickart (far right, in foreground) and Dave Scott (behind Schweickart). The other people are frogmen from the recovery team. Credit: NASA
The Apollo 9 astronauts await recovery from a helicopter from USS Guadalcanal on March 13, 1969. The crew included Jim McDivitt (in hatch), Rusty Schweickart (far right, in foreground) and Dave Scott (behind Schweickart). The other people are frogmen from the recovery team. Credit: NASA
The Apollo 9 aboard the recovery ship USS Guadalcanal on March 13, 1969. From left: Rusty Schweickart (lunar module pilot), Dave Scott (command module pilot) and Jim McDivitt (commander). Credit: NASA
The Apollo 9 aboard the recovery ship USS Guadalcanal on March 13, 1969. From left: Rusty Schweickart (lunar module pilot), Dave Scott (command module pilot) and Jim McDivitt (commander). Credit: NASA

The Mission to Find the Missing Lunar Module

[/caption]

Where is the Apollo 10 Lunar lander module? It’s somewhere out there — orbiting the Sun — and there’s a new initiative to try and find it!

The Apollo 10 mission launched on May 18, 1968 and was a manned “dry run” for its successor Apollo 11, testing all of the procedures and components of a Moon landing without actually landing on the Moon itself.

After carrying out a successful lunar orbit and docking procedure, the Lunar Module (called “Snoopy”) was jettisoned and sent into an orbit around the Sun.

After 42 years, it’s believed to still be in a heliocentric orbit and a team of UK and international astronomers working with schools are going to try and find it.

The idea is the brainchild of British amateur astronomer Nick Howes who helped coordinate a very successful asteroid and comet project with schools and Faulkes Telescope during this past summer.

After consulting with people from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other orbital dynamics experts, the Howes has assembled a team of facilities and experts, including the Faulkes Telescope, Space Exploration Engineering Corp, astronomers from the Remanzacco Observatory in Italy and schools across the UK.

They know they have a massive undertaking ahead of them to find Snoopy.

“The key problem which we are taking on is a lack of solid orbital data since 1969,” Howes told Universe Today. “We’ve enlisted the help of the Space Exploration Engineering Corp who have calculated orbits for Apollo 10 and working closely with people who were on the Apollo mission team in the era will help us identify search coordinate regions.”

“We’re expecting a search arc anywhere up to 135 million kilometres in size which is a huge amount of space to look at, ” Howes continued. “We’re aware of the scale and magnitude of this challenge but to have the twin Faulkes scopes assist the hunt, along with schools, plus the fact that we’ll doubtless turn up many new finds such as comets and asteroids makes this a great science project too. We’re also encouraging anyone to have a go as we’ll be posting the coordinates on to the Faulkes Telescope website starting in a few days”

While the challenge ahead of Howes and the team is enormous, and the chances of the team finding Snoopy are very small, the team are enthusing thousands of people with their own “Apollo Mission” – the mission to find the missing Apollo Lunar module.

Credit: Faulkes Telescope