John Houbolt

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John C. Houbolt
Lunar Orbit Rendezvous.gif
John Houbolt explains Lunar orbit rendezvous
Born (1919-04-10)April 10, 1919
Altoona, Iowa, U.S.
Died April 15, 2014(2014-04-15) (aged 95)
Scarborough, Maine, U.S.
Fields Aerospace engineering
Institutions National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Langley Research Center
Alma mater University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, ETH Zurich
Notable awards NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal, 1963

John Cornelius Houbolt (April 10, 1919 to April 15, 2014) was an aerospace engineer. He is generally credited with having effectively promoted the lunar mission mode called "lunar orbit rendezvous" or LOR. This flight path was first endorsed by Wernher von Braun in June 1961 and was chosen for Apollo program in early 1962. This critical decision was viewed as vital to ensuring that Man reached the Moon in the 1960s, as President John F. Kennedy had proposed and, in the process, saved billions of dollars and time by efficiently using existing rocket technology.


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]

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]

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] His papers are held at University of Illinois Archives.[1][6] He is additionally commemorated in the city of Joliet: The street fronting Joliet Junior College, which he attended, was renamed Houbolt Road, and a mural in Joliet Union Station includes a Lunar Module, in reference to his work for NASA.

He lived in Williamsburg, Virginia.[7][8] He lives in Scarborough, Maine.[9]

In the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, Houbolt was played by Reed Birney.[10]


LOR explained by Houbolt

Although the basics of the LOR concept had been expressed as early 1916 by Yuri Kondratyuk[11] 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.[12] 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.[13]

Max Faget:

His figures lie, he doesn't know what he's talking about.[14][15]

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 30,000 pounds), 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.


  • Somewhat as a voice in the wilderness, I would like to pass on a few thoughts.
  • Do we want to go to the moon or not? (In a 1961 letter to Robert Seamans, NASA associate administrator.)[16]


  1. ^ a b "John C. Houbolt:: An Inventory of the John C. Houbolt Papers at the University of Illinois Archives". Retrieved 2010-09-01. 
  2. ^ "Houbolt". Retrieved 2010-09-01. 
  3. ^ "NASA - The Rendezvous That Almost Wasn't". Retrieved 2010-09-01. 
  4. ^ "Dr. John C. Houbolt". Retrieved 2010-09-01. 
  5. ^ by James ObergMonday, June 13, 2005 (2005-06-13). "Academic honors for a spaceflight prophet". The Space Review. Retrieved 2010-09-01. 
  6. ^ John C. Houbolt Papers, UIUC Archives
  7. ^ "MOON LANDING'S OTHER HERO - DR. JOHN HOUBOLT OF JOLIET - Herald-News (Joliet, IL) | HighBeam Research - FREE trial". 1999-08-01. Retrieved 2010-09-01. 
  8. ^ "John Houbolt". Retrieved 2010-09-01. 
  9. ^ Matti Kinnunen, Interview with Dr. John Houbolt, Spring 2005, at 5
  10. ^ Reed Birney at the Internet Movie Database
  11. ^ [1][dead link]
  12. ^ "3 Missions, Modes, and Manufacturing". SP-4206 Stages to Saturn. Archived from the original on 2004-10-31. Retrieved 2010-09-01. 
  13. ^ James R. Hansen (December 1995). "Enchanted Rendezvous: John Houbolt and the Genesis of the Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous Concept". Monographs in Aerospace History Series #4. Archived from the original on 2006-09-29. Retrieved 2006-06-26. 
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ Tennant, Diane (2009-11-15). "Forgotten engineer was key to space race success | |". Retrieved 2010-09-01. 

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