The Perseverance of John Houbolt

And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.

~Ge 11:6 (NKJV)

Whenever I hear this verse, I think of mankind’s travels into space.

December always seems to be a busy time for space news. You may have heard of the recent news that two Colorado natives were chosen as part of the Artemis team to go to the moon. “Matthew Dominick of Wheat Ridge and Jessica Watkins of Lafayette were two of 18 astronauts introduced by Vice President Mike Pence Wednesday at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center” according to the Denver Gazette on 9 December 2020. It was on 26 March 2019 that Mike Pence directed NASA to land humans on the moon by 2024, which is quite reminiscent of President John F Kennedy’s call to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

Of course, it was the series of Apollo missions that resulted from JFK’s ambitious view.

When you think of the giants of the space race, who do you think of? Neil Armstrong? John Glenn? Buzz Aldrin? Alan Shepard? Perhaps you have heard of George Mueller, the NASA associate administrator. Perhaps you are familiar with names like Wernher von Braun, the famous and charismatic rocket engineer, or the almost as famous Max Faget, who designed the Mercury spacecraft and subsequently went on to help design the space shuttle.

Or, perhaps you think of John Houbolt. At this point, some of you undoubtedly are thinking, “Who?”

In an Audible exclusive audiobook, The Man Who Knew the Way to the Moon, by Todd Zwillich, is the story of the trials and hardships of a man who insisted he knew how to get to the moon and do it cheaper and within JFK’s deadline but who many would ignore or ridicule. The story of John Houbolt is the story of perseverance, if nothing else.

Prior to JFK’s speech setting a deadline to reach the moon, many, including Wernher von Braun, saw the way to the moon as using a single gigantic rocket ship, sort of what Flash Gordon used to use. This approach, called direct ascent, was the basis for his Nova project. However, they soon reached a practical limit. While they were able to design a rocket with three engines, it would require at least a grouping of five engines to gain the velocity needed to get to the moon. The immense size of the entire rocket would have dwarfed the size of the Saturn rocket system eventually used in the Apollo flights just to contain enough fuel to go to the moon and return.

Not only was this an engineering nightmare, but no one was certain that the surface of the moon was even stable enough to allow the landing of such a huge rocket. It presented visual landing difficulties as well, and, as hindsight has proven, there were well-founded concerns over avoiding obstacles on the lunar surface that could not be detected until up close.

A competing theory was Earth Orbital Rendezvous, or EOR. The rockets could be smaller, but you would have up to five rockets that would have to take off within hours, or at most days, of one another and reassemble in earth’s orbit. It would require more rockets, but once in space not as much fuel would be needed to get to the moon. However, once they got to the moon, there would be similar issues that they would have with direct ascent. They would still have to have enough fuel to return to earth, so it would still be a rather large rocket.

John Houbolt endorsed Lunar Orbital Rendezvous, or LOR. It would consist of a mother ship and a much smaller lunar lander that would detach, land on the moon, take off and rendezvous with the larger ship in order to return to earth. It drastically reduced the amount of fuel needed, and the smaller craft would be easier to see out of during a landing. However, many thought it was much too risky. EOR was already considered risky, but at least it was in familiar territory, that is, around planet earth.

There was one real problem with EOR: There wasn’t enough time. JFK had thrown down the gauntlet, and it required some quick decisions and some shortcuts. LOR really was the only way to get to the moon and back, and do it by JFK’s deadline.

However, it took two years of continual campaigning for John Houbolt to win people over. Max Faget actually stood up in one presentation and yelled, “His figures lie! He doesn’t know what he is talking about.” Faget then stormed out of the room. While this was certainly not the only slight against Houbolt, it was one of the most hurtful.

Houbolt decided to go outside of the chain of command. You have to remember that NASA had a military structure, and bucking rank was considered a rather serious offense. Houbolt knew it was risking his career. Still, Houbolt was determined to be heard.

He fired off a stern letter detailing his ideas about LOR along with two volumes of massive calculations to NASA’s 3rd in command Robert Seamans. Seamans was first inclined to tell the leaders of Langley Research to get their guy in line, when he suddenly remembered that he had actually met Houbolt about a year prior. He realized that, crank or not, Houbolt knew what he was talking about. Joseph Shea was tasked with digging into it more and get everyone in NASA on the same sheet of music.

By this point in time, even von Braun was realizing that direct ascent was impractical. While EOR made much more sense, it also turned out to be much more complex than originally thought, and it would require technology that we still don’t have today.

Houbolt had something going for him. LOR and EOR were still theories, but, as Zwillich puts it, Houbolt had run the numbers on LOR. He compared them to EOR and direct ascent, and the numbers showed a definite advantage to LOR. This impressed Shea, who took his thoughts to Wernher von Braun.

Eventually, Houbolt was given another chance to present his ideas, and with none less than the influential Wernher von Braun in the audience. Everyone else was pushing EOR. Everyone expected von Braun to stand up at the conclusion and embrace EOR, the prevailing model, but instead he stood up at the end and announced that LOR was the path forward. Von Braun actually admitted he had been wrong, which is something that Houbolt had rarely come across in NASA.

Now, if this were a Hallmark movie, that would have been the end, and everyone would have lived happy ever after. However, real life does not work that way. You see, Houbolt had managed to annoy a lot of people, and his sin of bucking the chain of command was unforgivable to some.

Just a few weeks after his presentation to von Braun, Houbolt was in Washington on other matters. He came across some of the “Johnson people”, who were there to give a pitch to contractors for LOR. The problem was that Houbolt had not been invited to it. The team at Langley was not even put on the slide of engineer credits.

This was probably what pushed him over the edge. Shortly afterwards, Houbolt would leave Langley Research. He had fought and won, but at what cost? Even after converting many over to LOR, he was still being marginalized by some. Indeed, there are articles and biographies today that seem to want to minimize or even ignore Houbolt’s contributions.

He was up for a major award in 1973 for scientific achievements. However, one influential NASA official Bob Gilruth wrote the committee to essentially say his own space task group did all the real work, and that he was for LOR all along. That seemed to be a theme after the fact, that some would claim to have been for LOR all along, in spite of clear evidence otherwise.

The book also points out that the same debates keep coming up. Engineer reports on frozen o-rings get ignored in a political bureaucracy. “To buck the chain of command or not?” becomes the question. Now with yet another moon deadline, debates over building platforms to assemble rockets in earth’s orbit have sprung up again, similar to earlier EOR debates. Will moving forward require a rogue engineer to push the best idea forward?


Now, I left a great deal out of this story, so if you want to get the Audible book by Todd Zwillich, The Man Who Knew the Way to the Moon, I think you will still get a lot out of it. I want to focus on three takeaways I had from this book.

1. John Houbolt endured ridicule, malignings and threats to do what was right. We are called to the same, and more.

11 Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

~Mt 5:11-12 (NKJV)

2. Houbolt yearned for human recognition, but he never received what he, very likely, deserved. Human recognition is fleeting and fickle. We should be looking for recognition from God.

Do Good to Please God

6 “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you [a]openly.

~Mt 6:1-4 (NKJV)

3. Human beings are capable of doing great things, but we usually won’t. God said “nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them”, but the problem is that we ourselves will get in our way. Houbolt’s story points out that even in the scientific community, human politicking and backbiting occur. Nothing will be restrained from us, but we will restrain and even injure ourselves.

And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for [a]all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, [b]pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows.

~Mt 24:6-8 (NKJV)

Mankind cannot rule himself. He has shown down through history that this is true.

So, whenever you want to give up, whenever you want to throw in the towel, perhaps you will think of John Houbolt and how he persevered in the face of unwarranted criticism and skepticism. One day, we will also be vindicated, but not by men but by God. We must persevere. Jesus said that he who overcomes, that is, successfully makes it to the end, will be saved. Perseverance, brethren, is a requirement.

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