Early Reaction to LOR

When the special NASA committees in 1961 (see Chapter 2) were trying to get the Apollo program defined, Houbolt made the rounds, making certain that everyone knew of Langley's lunar-orbit rendezvous studies. At a meeting of the Space Exploration Program Council on 5 and 6 January, his arguments for lunar rendezvous were lost in the attention being given to direct flight and earth-orbit rendezvous.26 In Washington on 27 and 28 February, when Headquarters sponsored an intercenter rendezvous meeting, Houbolt again summarized Langley's recent efforts. But both the Gilruth and von Braun teams stood solidly behind their respective positions, direct flight and earth-orbit rendezvous. Houbolt later recalled his frustration when it seemed lunar-orbit rendezvous "just wouldn't catch on."27

On 19 May, Houbolt bypassed the chain of command and wrote directly to Seamans to express his belief that rendezvous was not receiving due consideration. He pointed out that the American booster development program was in poor shape and that NASA appeared to have no firm plans beyond the initial version of the Saturn, the C-1. Houbolt was equally critical of NASA's failure to recognize the need for developing rendezvous techniques. Because of the lag in launch vehicle development, he said, it seemed obvious that the only mode available to NASA in the next few years would be rendezvous.28

In June Houbolt, a member of Bruce Lundin's group - the first team specifically authorized to examine anything except direct flight - talked to the group about his concept. Although the Lundin Committee initially seemed interested in Houbolt's description of lunar-orbit rendezvous, only lunar-surface rendezvous scored lower in its final report.29

During July and August, Houbolt had almost the same reaction from Donald Heaton's committee. Although this group had been instructed to study rendezvous, the members interpreted that mandate as limiting them to the earth-orbit mode. Houbolt, himself a member of the committee, pleaded with the others to include lunar-orbit rendezvous; but, he later recalled, time after time he was told, "No, no, no. Our charter [applies only to] Earth orbit rendezvous." Some of the members, seeing how deeply he felt about the mode question, told him to write his own report to Seamans, explaining his convictions in detail.

Growing discouraged at the lack of interest, Houbolt and his Langley colleagues began to see themselves as sole champions of the technique. They decided to change their tactics. "The only way to do it," Houbolt said later, was "to go out on our own, present our own documents and our own findings, and make our case sufficiently strong that people [would] have to consider it."30

Houbolt felt that things were looking up when the Space Task Group asked him to prepare a paper on rendezvous for the Apollo Technical Conference in mid-July 1961. At the dry run, however, when he and the other speakers presented their papers for final review, Houbolt was told to confine himself to rendezvous in general and to "throw out all [that] LOR."31

The next opportunity Houbolt had to fight for his cause came when Seamans and John Rubel established the Golovin Committee. Nicholas Golovin and his team were supposed to recommend a set of boosters for the national space program, but they found this an impossible task unless they knew how the launch vehicles would be used. This group was one of the first to display serious interest in Langley's rendezvous scheme. At a session on 29 August, when Houbolt was asked, "In what areas have you received the most violent criticism of these ideas?" he replied:

Everyone says that it is hard enough to perform a rendezvous in the earth orbit, how can you even think of doing a lunar rendezvous? My answer is that rendezvous in lunar orbit is quite simple - no worries about weather or air friction. In any case, I would rather bring down 7,000 pounds [3,200 kilograms] to the lunar surface than 150,000 pounds [68,000 kilograms]. This is the strongest point in my argument.32

Realizing that he at last had his chance to present his plan to a group that was really listening, Houbolt called John Bird and Arthur Vogeley, asking them to hurry to Washington to help him brief the Golovin Committee. Afterward the trio returned to Langley and compiled a two-volume report, describing the concept and outlining in detail a program based on the lunar-orbit mode. Langley's report was submitted to Golovin on 11 October 1961. After it had been thoroughly reviewed, its highlights were discussed, favorably, in the Golovin report.33

Instead of resting after his labors with the Golovin Committee, Houbolt went back to Langley and the task of getting out his minority report on the Heaton group's findings. He submitted it to Seamans in mid November, with a cover note that said, in part, "I am convinced that man will first set foot on the moon through the use of ideas akin to those expressed herein."34 His report to Seamans, a nine-page indictment of the planning for America's lunar program to date, was a vigorous plea for consideration of Langley's approach.

"Somewhat as a voice in the wilderness," he began, "I would like to pass on a few thoughts on matters that have been of deep concern to me over the recent months." Houbolt explained to Seamans that he was skipping the proper channels because the issues were crucial. After recounting his attempts to draw the attention of others in NASA to the lunar-orbit rendezvous scheme, Houbolt noted that, "regrettably, there was little interest shown in the idea."

He went on to ask, "Do we want to get to the moon or not?" If so, why not develop a lunar landing program to meet a given booster capability instead of building vehicles to carry out a preconceived plan? "Why is NOVA, with its ponderous [size] simply just accepted, and why is a much less grandiose scheme involving rendezvous ostracized or put on the defensive?" Noting that it was the small Saturn C-3 that was the pacing item in the lunar rendezvous approach, he added, parenthetically, "I would not be surprised to have the plan criticized on the basis that it is not grandiose enough."

A principal charge leveled at lunar-orbit rendezvous, Houbolt said, was the absence of an abort capability, lowering the safety factor for the crew. Actually, he argued, the direct opposite was true. The lunar-rendezvous method offered a degree of safety and reliability far greater than that possible by the direct approach, he said. But "it is one thing to gripe, another to offer constructive criticism," Houbolt conceded. He then recommended that NASA use the Mark II Mercury in a manned rendezvous experiment program and the C-3 and lunar rendezvous to accomplish the manned lunar landing.35

Seamans replied to Houbolt early in December. "I agree that you touched upon facets of the technical approach to manned lunar landing which deserve serious consideration," Seamans wrote. He also commended Houbolt for his vigorous pursuit of his ideas. "It would be extremely harmful to our organization and to the country if our qualified staff were unduly limited by restrictive guidelines." The Associate Administrator added that he believed all views on the best way to carry out the manned lunar landing were being carefully weighed and that lunar-orbit rendezvous would be given the same impartial consideration as any other approach.36

26. Minutes, Space Exploration Program Council meeting, 5-6 Jan. 1961.

27. Floyd L. Thompson to NASA Hq., Attn.: Bernard Maggin, "Forthcoming Inter-NASA Meeting on Rendezvous," 4 Jan. 1961, with enc.; E. J. Manganiello to NASA Hq., "Agenda for Orbital Rendezvous Discussions," 5 Jan. 1961, with enc.; Bird and David F. Thomas, Jr., "Material for Meeting of Centers on Rendezvous, February 27-28, 1961: Studies Relating to the Accuracy of Arrival at a Rendezvous Point," n.d.; agenda, NASA Inter-Center Rendezvous Discussions, General Meeting - 27-28 Feb. 1961; Bird, "Short History," p. 3; Houbolt interview.

28. Houbolt to Seamans, 19 May 1961.

29. Bruce T. Lundin et al., "A Survey of Various Vehicle Systems for the Manned Lunar Mission," 10 June 1961; Houbolt interview.

30. "Earth Orbital Rendezvous for an Early Manned Lunar Landing," pt. 1, Summary Report of Ad Hoc Task Group [Heaton Committee] Study, August 1961; Houbolt interview.

31. Gilruth to General Dynamics Astronautics, Attn.: William F. Rector III, 27 June 1961, with enc., "Proposed Agenda, NASA-Industry Apollo Technical Conference, . . . July 18, 1961"; Thompson to STG, Attn.: Purser, "Rehearsal schedule for the NASA-Industry Apollo Technical Conference," 3 July 1961, with enc.; John C. Houbolt, "Considerations of Space Rendezvous," in "NASA-Industry Apollo Technical Conference July 18, 19, 20, 1961: A Compilation of the Papers Presented," pt. 1, pp. 73, 79; Houbolt interview.

32. Minutes of presentation to LLVPG by Houbolt, 29 Aug. 1961.

33. Ibid.; [John C. Houbolt et al.], "Manned Lunar Landing through use of Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous," 2 vols., LaRC, 31 Oct. 1961, p. i; Mike Weeks to LLVPG staff, no subj., 2 Oct. 1961, with encs.; Bird interview; Bird, "Short History," p. 3.

34. Houbolt to Seamans, no subj., [ca. 15 Nov. 1961].

35. Houbolt to Seamans, 15 Nov. 1961 (emphasis in original).

36. Seamans to Houbolt, 4 Dec. 1961.

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