John Houbolt

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John Houbolt
John Houbolt 1962-L-05849.jpg
John Houbolt explains Lunar orbit rendezvous
John Cornelius Houbolt

(1919-04-10)April 10, 1919
DiedApril 15, 2014(2014-04-15) (aged 95)
Alma mater University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, ETH Zurich
Awards NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal, 1963
Scientific career
Fields Aerospace engineering
Institutions National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Langley Research Center

John Cornelius Houbolt (April 10, 1919 – April 15, 2014) was an aerospace engineer credited with leading the team behind the lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR) mission mode, a concept that was used to successfully land humans on the Moon and return them to Earth. This flight path was first endorsed by Wernher von Braun in June 1961 and was chosen for Apollo program in early 1962. The critical decision to use LOR was viewed as vital to ensuring that Man reached the Moon by the end of the decade as proposed by President John F. Kennedy. In the process, LOR saved time and billions of dollars by efficiently using existing rocket technology.

Lunar orbit rendezvous Spaceflight maneuver

Lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR) is a key concept for efficiently landing humans on the Moon and returning them to Earth. It was utilized for the Project Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s. In a LOR mission, a main spacecraft and a smaller lunar lander travel to lunar orbit. The lunar lander then independently descends to the surface of the Moon, while the main spacecraft remains in lunar orbit. After completion of the mission there, the lander returns to lunar orbit to rendezvous and re-dock with the main spacecraft, then is discarded after transfer of crew and payload. Only the main spacecraft returns to Earth.

Wernher von Braun German, later an American, aerospace engineer and space architect

Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun was a German-American aerospace engineer and space architect. He was the leading figure in the development of rocket technology in Germany and a pioneer of rocket technology and space science in the United States.

Apollo program Manned U.S. lunar missions from 1966–1972

The Apollo program, also known as Project Apollo, was the third United States human spaceflight program carried out by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which succeeded in landing the first humans on the Moon from 1969 to 1972. First conceived during Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration as a three-man spacecraft to follow the one-man Project Mercury which put the first Americans in space, Apollo was later dedicated to President John F. Kennedy's national goal of "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth" by the end of the 1960s, which he proposed in an address to Congress on May 25, 1961. It was the third US human spaceflight program to fly, preceded by the two-man Project Gemini conceived in 1961 to extend spaceflight capability in support of Apollo.



Certificate from NASA LOR Certif.gif
Certificate from NASA

Houbolt was born in Altoona, Iowa in 1919. [1] He spent part of his childhood in Joliet, Illinois, where he attended Joliet Central High School and Joliet Junior College. He attended the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, earning a Bachelors (1940) and a Masters (1942) degree in civil engineering. He later received a PhD in Technical Sciences in 1957 from ETH Zurich. Houbolt began his career at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1942, and stayed on at NASA after it succeeded NACA, until retirement in 1985. [2]

Joliet, Illinois City in Illinois, United States

Joliet is a city in Will and Kendall counties in the U.S. state of Illinois, 30 miles (48 km) southwest of Chicago. It is the county seat of Will County and a major part of the southwest Chicago metropolitan area. At the 2010 census, the city was the fourth largest in Illinois, with a population of 147,433. A population estimate in 2018 put Joliet's population at 150,495, which would make it the 3rd largest city in Illinois if accurate.

Joliet Central High School public school in Joliet, Illinois

Joliet Central High School is a public secondary school located in Joliet, Illinois. Central is part of Joliet Township High Schools, along with Joliet West and Joliet East. Before the opening of Joliet East and West, the school was called Joliet Township High School. In 1993, when Joliet Central and Joliet West combined many of their athletic and other competitive extracurricular programs, the combined program took the old "Joliet Township" name.

Joliet Junior College community college in Illinois

Joliet Junior College (JJC) is a community college in Joliet, Illinois. Founded in 1901, it was the first public community college founded in the United States. JJC offers pre-baccalaureate programs for students planning to transfer to a four-year university, as well as occupational education leading directly to employment. Additionally, JJC offers adult education and literacy programs, workforce development services, and student support services.

Houbolt was an engineer at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and he was one of the most vocal of a minority of engineers who supported LOR and his campaign in 1961 and 1962. Once this mode was chosen in 1962, many other aspects of the mission were significantly based on this fundamental design decision. He was a guest at Mission control for the Apollo 11 lunar landing. [3]

Langley Research Center NASA field center

Langley Research Center located in Hampton, Virginia, United States, is the oldest of NASA's field centers. It directly borders Langley Air Force Base and the Back River on the Chesapeake Bay. LaRC has focused primarily on aeronautical research, but has also tested space hardware at the facility, such as the Apollo Lunar Module. In addition, a number of the earliest high-profile space missions were planned and designed on-site.

Christopher C. Kraft Jr. Mission Control Center NASA center in Houston, Texas

NASA's Christopher C. Kraft Jr. Mission Control Center, also known by its radio callsign, Houston, is the facility at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas that manages flight control for America's human space program, currently involving astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The center is in Building 30 at the Johnson Space Center which is named after Christopher C. Kraft Jr., a retired NASA engineer and manager who was instrumental in establishing the agency's Mission Control operation, and was the first Flight Director. Prime contractor for systems integration at Houston was Philco Corp., selected by NASA in January 1963.

Apollo 11 First crewed mission to land on the Moon

Apollo 11 was the spaceflight that landed the first two people on the Moon. Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin, both American, landed the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle on July 20, 1969, at 20:17 UTC. Armstrong became the first person to step onto the lunar surface six hours later on July 21 at 02:56:15 UTC; Aldrin joined him 19 minutes later. They spent about two and a quarter hours together outside the spacecraft, and collected 47.5 pounds (21.5 kg) of lunar material to bring back to Earth. Command module pilot Michael Collins flew the command module Columbia alone in lunar orbit while they were on the Moon's surface. Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21.5 hours on the lunar surface before rejoining Columbia in lunar orbit.

He was awarded the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 1963. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering. [4] He was awarded an honorary doctorate, awarded on May 15, 2005 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, [5] and his papers were deposited in the University of Illinois Archives. [1] [6] In 2009, the Illinois House of Representatives adopted HR 540 in his honor. [7] He is additionally commemorated in the city of Joliet: The street fronting Joliet Junior College, which he attended, was renamed Houbolt Road; a mural in Joliet Union Station includes a Lunar Module, in reference to his work for NASA; and a wing of the Joliet Area Historical Museum became a permanent exhibit to celebrate his achievements. [8]

NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal

The NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal was established by NASA on September 15, 1961 when the original ESM was divided into three separate awards. Under the current guidelines, the ESAM is awarded for unusually significant scientific contribution toward achievement of aeronautical or space exploration goals. This award may be given for individual efforts that have resulted in a contribution of fundamental importance in this field, or have significantly enhanced understanding of this field.

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) is an American nonprofit, non-governmental organization. The National Academy of Engineering is part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, along with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the National Academy of Medicine, and the National Research Council.

Illinois House of Representatives lower house of the Illinois General Assembly

The Illinois House of Representatives is the lower house of the Illinois General Assembly, the bicameral legislature of the U.S. state of Illinois. The body was created by the first Illinois Constitution adopted in 1818. The House consists of 118 representatives elected from individual legislative districts for two-year terms with no limits; redistricted every 10 years, based on the 2010 U.S. census each representative represents approximately 108,734 people.

He lived in Williamsburg, Virginia. [9] [10] In later years he lived in Scarborough, Maine. [11] He died at a nursing home there in 2014 of Parkinson's disease. [12]

Williamsburg, Virginia Independent city in Virginia

Williamsburg is an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia, United States. As of the 2010 U.S. Census, the population was 14,068. In 2014, the population was estimated to be 14,691. Located on the Virginia Peninsula, Williamsburg is in the northern part of the Hampton Roads metropolitan area. It is bordered by James City County and York County.

Scarborough, Maine Town in Maine, United States

Scarborough is a town in Cumberland County on the southern coast of the U.S. state of Maine. The town is a coastal resort area. Located about 7 miles (11 km) south of Portland, Scarborough is part of the Portland–South Portland–Biddeford, Maine metropolitan statistical area. The population was 18,919 at the 2010 census.

Parkinsons disease long-term degenerative neurological disorder that mainly affects movement

Parkinson's disease (PD) is a long-term degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that mainly affects the motor system. As the disease worsens, non-motor symptoms become increasingly common. The symptoms generally come on slowly over time. Early in the disease, the most obvious are shaking, rigidity, slowness of movement, and difficulty with walking. Thinking and behavioral problems may also occur. Dementia becomes common in the advanced stages of the disease. Depression and anxiety are also common, occurring in more than a third of people with PD. Other symptoms include sensory, sleep, and emotional problems. The main motor symptoms are collectively called "parkinsonism", or a "parkinsonian syndrome".

In the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon , Houbolt was played by Reed Birney. [13]

HBO American pay television network

HBO is an American premium cable and satellite television network owned by the namesake unit Home Box Office, Inc., a division of AT&T's WarnerMedia. The program which featured on the network consists primarily of theatrically released motion pictures and original television shows, along with made-for-cable movies, documentaries and occasional comedy and concert specials.

Lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR)

LOR explained by Houbolt John C. Houbolt - GPN-2000-001274.jpg
LOR explained by Houbolt

Although the basics of the lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR) concept had been expressed as early as 1916 by Yuri Kondratyuk [14] and 1923 by German rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth, NASA would provide the first practical application of the concept. Some engineers were concerned about the risks of space rendezvous, especially in lunar orbit, where there would be no fallback options in case of a major mishap. [15] Houbolt had presented the LOR concept to a series of panels.

Houbolt has a scheme that has a 50 percent chance of getting a man to the moon and a 1 percent of getting him back [16]

Max Faget:

His figures lie, he doesn't know what he's talking about [17] [18]

After many technical conferences debating Direct ascent, Earth orbit rendezvous, and LOR, Wernher von Braun supported the concept.

While some aspects of Houbolt's initial estimates were off (such as a 10,000 pound Apollo Lunar Module which was ultimately 32,399 lb (14,696 kg)), his LOR package proved to be feasible with a single Saturn V rocket whereas other modes would have required two or more such rocket launches (or larger rockets than were then available) to lift enough mass into space to complete the mission.

Space Shuttle tiles

Leading up to the first mission of the Space Shuttle, STS-1, in 1981 Houboult co-wrote a letter [19] with structural engineer Holt Ashley to Chris Kraft, director of Johnson Space Center, imploring him to delay the launch believing the orbiter would suffer major loss of thermal protection tiles, and potentially lose the vehicle. [20]

Of particular concern was a strut attaching the nose of the orbiter to the External Tank. Langley Research Center urged further wind tunnel testing, which Kraft reluctantly agreed to do. While the tiles had been an ongoing concern since the original development of the Shuttle, the teams involved believed it was safe to fly by that point.

Upon jettisoning, the External Tank did show heat damage around the forward strut area, as feared. On reaching orbit some tiles were visibly missing around the tail of the Shuttle, and fears that the more-critical tiles on the underside of the vehicle were damaged led to a hastily-arranged effort to use KH-11 KENNEN spy satellites and the Kuiper Airborne Observatory to acquire imaging of the Shuttle in orbit to assess the damage. Fortunately, the damage was minimal, and the mission concluded safely.


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Constellation program manned spaceflight program developed by NASA from 2005 to 2009

The Constellation Program is a cancelled manned spaceflight program developed by NASA, the space agency of the United States, from 2005 to 2009. The major goals of the program were "completion of the International Space Station" and a "return to the Moon no later than 2020" with a crewed flight to the planet Mars as the ultimate goal. The program's logo reflected the three stages of the program: the Earth (ISS), the Moon, and finally Mars—while the Mars goal also found expression in the name given to the program's booster rockets: Ares. The technological aims of the program included the regaining of significant astronaut experience beyond low Earth orbit and the development of technologies necessary to enable sustained human presence on other planetary bodies.

Nova (rocket) series of proposed rocket designs

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Earth orbit rendezvous

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Direct ascent is a method of landing a spacecraft on the Moon or another planet directly, without first assembling the vehicle in Earth orbit, or carrying a separate landing vehicle into orbit around the target body. It was proposed as the first method to achieve a manned lunar landing in the United States Apollo program, but was rejected because it would have required developing a prohibitively large launch vehicle. It was used to launch uncrewed lunar landers in the United States Surveyor program and the Soviet Luna program.

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The Joliet Area Historical Museum is a historical museum located in Joliet, Illinois. The museum documents the history of Joliet and surrounding Will County.


  1. 1 2 "John C. Houbolt:: An Inventory of the John C. Houbolt Papers at the University of Illinois Archives". Retrieved 2010-09-01.
  2. "Houbolt". Archived from the original on 2010-01-31. Retrieved 2010-09-01.
  3. "NASA - The Rendezvous That Almost Wasn't". Retrieved 2010-09-01.
  4. "Dr. John C. Houbolt". Archived from the original on 2010-05-29. Retrieved 2010-09-01.
  5. James ObergMonday, June 13, 2005 (2005-06-13). "Academic honors for a spaceflight prophet". The Space Review. Retrieved 2010-09-01.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. John C. Houbolt Papers, UIUC Archives
  7. Bill Status of HR540
  8. The Soaring Achievements of John C. Houbolt
  9. "MOON LANDING'S OTHER HERO - DR. JOHN HOUBOLT OF JOLIET - Herald-News (Joliet, IL) | HighBeam Research - FREE trial". 1999-08-01. Archived from the original on 2012-11-04. Retrieved 2010-09-01.
  10. "John Houbolt". Retrieved 2010-09-01.
  11. Matti Kinnunen, Interview with Dr. John Houbolt Archived 2011-07-28 at the Wayback Machine , Spring 2005, at 5
  13. Reed Birney on IMDb
  14. Archived January 14, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  15. "3 Missions, Modes, and Manufacturing". SP-4206 Stages to Saturn. Archived from the original on 2004-10-31. Retrieved 2010-09-01.
  16. James R. Hansen (December 1995). "Enchanted Rendezvous: John Houbolt and the Genesis of the Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous Concept" (PDF). Monographs in Aerospace History Series #4. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-09-29. Retrieved 2006-06-26.
  19. "Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. Oral History". 2010-02-11. Retrieved 2018-04-07.[ dead link ]
  20. White, Rowland; Truly, Richard (2017-04-18). Into the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the Astronauts Who Flew Her (revised). Touchstone. ISBN   9781501123634.
  21. Tennant, Diane (2009-11-15). "Forgotten engineer was key to space race success | |". Retrieved 2010-09-01.