Professionalism/John Houbolt and Lunar Orbit Rendezvous

John Houbolt


John Houbolt was an aerospace engineer at NASA during the early stages of the Apollo Program. During this time, he was the head of the Rendezvous Committee and the assistant chief of the Dynamics Load Division. Houbolt was the primary advocate of using lunar orbit rendezvous for landing a spacecraft on the moon. He believed this concept was not being fully considered, so he broke the established code of conduct and wrote a letter to Robert Seamans, the Associate Administrator of NASA, recommending lunar orbit rendezvous. After Houbolt sent this letter, lunar orbit rendezvous was considered more fully and was adopted as the method for landing a spacecraft on the moon in 1962. Houbolt's contributions to the Apollo Program are considered paramount in landing man on the moon before the decade was out in 1969.[1]

Sputnik and John F. Kennedy's PromiseEdit

In 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik. This was an extraordinary technical achievement by the United States' Cold War adversary. Its success meant that the Soviet Union was leading the Space Race. Additionally, Americans believed that the Soviet Union now would be able to successfully launch nuclear missiles. The success of Sputnik lead to the creation of National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The United States felt it needed to respond to the Soviets' achievement. On May 25, 1961, John F Kennedy announced that the United States would achieve the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Following this challenge, members of NASA were concerned about the project’s feasibility. They believed that a successful lunar landing in fewer than nine years was impossible. NASA was unsure if the lunar mission was possible at all, let alone in that short time-frame. One NASA engineer said, “we didn't know a thing about orbital mechanics, celestial trajectories, or interplanetary travel, so we had to teach ourselves the subjects” [2]


John HouboltEdit

John Houbolt received his BS and MS in civil engineering from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1940 and 1942, respectively. He received a PhD in technical sciences from ETH Zurich in 1957.[3] Houbolt joined NASA when it was originally named the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1942 and worked at the Langley Research Center. He left NASA in 1963 after lunar orbit rendezvous was adopted to work as a senior vice president and senior consultant with Aeronautical Research Associates of Princeton, Inc.. Houbolt later returned to NASA in 1976 as NASA's Chief Aeronautical Scientist.[4]

While Houbolt was working for NASA in the 1960s, he was the head of the Rendezvous Committee. This committee analyzed different methods of landing a spacecraft on the moon.The three primary methods considered were lunar orbit rendezvous, earth orbit rendezvous, and direct. Houbolt found that the most feasible and least expensive method was lunar orbit rendezvous. This method, however, was not being considered as seriously as the other two methods. After lunar orbit rendezvous was rejected by three different committees, Houbolt broke the chain of command by writing a letter to NASA's Associate Administrator Robert Seamans in 1961 advocating for lunar orbit rendezvous.[1] This was highly unorthodox for Houbolt to do as Seamans was multiple levels above Houbolt in the NASA organization. In effect, Houbolt risked his job by writing this letter to promote lunar orbit rendezvous.[5]

Robert SeamansEdit

Robert Seamans began working at NACA in 1948 and continued working with the organization when it became NASA. He resigned from NASA in 1968. Seamans was the Associate Administrator of NASA from 1960 to 1965, when Houbolt was pushing for lunar orbit rendezvous as the method of landing on the moon.[6] Despite the unorthodox sending of Houbolt's letter, Seamans received it well. Seamans agreed with Houbolt stating "it would be extremely harmful to our organization and to the country if our qualified staff were unduly limited by restrictive guidelines." He also assured Houbolt that lunar orbit rendezvous would be given more consideration and that he sent his letter to Dyer Brainerd Homles, the head of the Office of Manned Space Flight.[5]

Max FagetEdit

Max Faget was a mechanical engineer from Stam Creek, British Honduras. Joining NACA in 1946, Faget quickly became an important member of NASA's aerodynamics and space launch teams; he was one of the 35 members assigned to the Space Task Group.[7] The Space Task Group's mission was to carry out Project Mercury, which was NASA's first man-in-space program.[8] As a part of this team, Faget thought of and proposed the development of a one-man spacecraft. He was also an early advocate of landing a man on the moon.[2] During the 1960s, Faget won several awards such as the Arthur S. Fleming Award, Golden Plate award, and NASA Medal for Outstanding Leadership. He was eventually inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame.[9]


Flight TechniquesEdit

There were 3 possible flight techniques that NASA could use to get to the moon:

The 3 flight techniques

The direct ascent method was the most popular approach for getting men on the moon. It was the simplest idea conceptually, as it involved launching a rocket directly to the Moon’s surface, then directly back to Earth. This approach necessitated a massive rocket, however. Dubbed ‘Nova,’ it would require the development of new and powerful rocket technology. Beyond the obstacle of rocket development, landing such a large rocket on the Moon would be difficult.

Comparison of lander sizes. Nova's massive lander on the left dwarf's the lander module that was made possible with LOR.
Earth Orbit RendezvousEdit

Earth Orbit Rendezvous involved the docking of two separate spacecraft in orbit around Earth before proceeding to the moon. This allowed for two smaller launches, while still resulting in a rocket large enough to return from the Moon. This offered an advantage over the Nova rocket because it’s rocket technology was nearing the end of development. However, this method also suffered from the challenge of landing such a large spacecraft on the Moon. [2]

Lunar Orbit RendezvousEdit

Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) involved launching a spacecraft into orbit around the Moon. A lander module would detach, visit the surface, then return to lunar orbit and rendezvous with the other part of the spacecraft before returning to Earth. Houbolt strongly advocated for this method because it required less fuel, payload, and new technology. Despite LOR’s advantages, one failure mode left American astronauts to die in orbit around the moon. If the lunar rendezvous failed, there would be no way to bring home the astronauts. [2]

Houbolt & LOREdit

Houbolt was an early champion of LOR, having thoroughly studied its advantages. His realization of his responsibility came in 1960: "'Almost simultaneously, it became clear that lunar orbit rendezvous offered a chain reaction simplification on all ‘back effects': development, testing, manufacturing, erection, countdown, flight operations, etc. … all would be simplified… If there is any idea we have to push, it is this one!' In this moment of revealed truth arose an ardent resolve: 'I vowed to dedicate myself to the task.'"[2]

Letter to SeamansEdit

In November 1961, after Houbolt’s LOR had been shot down three separate times,[2] he wrote a letter to Robert Seamans, NASA’s Associate Administrator. Seamans was many administrative levels above Houbolt, and the writing of this letter was, in Houbolt’s own words, “somewhat unorthodox; but the issues at stake are crucial enough to us all than an unusual course is warranted” [10] Houbolt’s first interaction with Seamans was in 1960 when Seamans toured Langley Research Center as part of his orientation to his new position as NASA Associate Administrator. He met Houbolt, who took the opportunity to tell Seamans about the potential of LOR as a lunar landing method.[11]

Opposition to LOREdit

As one of NASA’s experts on Space travel, Faget was involved in the Apollo projects. He was initially a proponent of the direct landing method. On two separate occasions, Faget turned down Hoboult’s lunar orbit rendezvous concept. Following the separate presentation at NASA’s headquarters, Faget claimed that Hoboult’s numbers “lie” and that “he doesn’t know what he’s talking about”. Faget made these statements in front of many high level NASA officials. It was particularly strange because Faget did not mention this in their private meeting four days earlier. His comments were described as “a brutal thing for one Langley engineer to say to another”. Additionally, at the same briefing, another engineer suggested an operational concept related to LOR in front of Faget. This presentation did not illicit a similar negative reaction. It is possible that Faget’s opposition to Hoboult’s idea was personal. In later meetings, Faget’s collegues in the STG agreed that LOR was not feasible.

After Hoboult wrote his letter, Faget again attended a meeting where Hoboult presented the LOR concept. This time the meeting included Seamans, who was sympathetic to LOR, and Joe Shea, who was known to follow where the data lead him. When asked his opinion regarding LOR, Faget stated that they were beginning to think LOR was a good idea. Following this meeting, LOR was adopted and Faget eventually admitted that “lunar-orbit rendezvous was the only sensible alternative”. [2]

Professional EthicsEdit

John Houbolt's experience with getting NASA to adopt LOR as the method of landing on the moon has a lot of insight into engineering professional ethics. Houbolt was adamant that LOR was the best method of landing man on the moon. He was willing to stick with the idea, despite being shot down by multiple committees. [5] Finally, Houbolt sent his letter to Seamans. This was a major breach of protocol as Seamans was far above Houbolt in the NASA chain of command. This method of contacting Seamans was so unorthodox that Houbolt feared he could lose his job. Thus, Houbolt could not have broken the chain of command without good reason.

The primary reason for Houbolt sending the letter was the urgency of the situation. President Kennedy set a hard and ambitious deadline for NASA getting a man to the moon by 1969. Furthermore, this project was costing the government billions of dollars and with the Cold War, and Space Race taking place, this was a matter of national security.

Houbolt also could not find a committee working on landing man on the moon to fully consider his idea. In his letter, Houbolt states that most of the committee members he spoke to were too enamored with the ideas of direct approach or earth orbit rendezvous. [10]

Finally, Houbolt had the engineering expertise and data to support his claim that LOR was the optimal method of landing. As the head of the Rendezvous Committee and having to defend LOR against multiple biased committees, Houbolt had analyzed data on all three means of landing.

Houbolt took a significant risk in writing a letter to Seamans in this manner, but he felt that the circumstances necessitated breaking the chain of command. Houbolt's actions could have resulted in his firing, but he broke the chain of command with good reason. Also, he was lucky that Seamans was receptive to his letter.


  1. a b NASA. The Rendezvous that was Almost Missed.
  2. a b c d e f g Hansen, James. (1999). Enchanted Rendezvous John C. Houbolt and the Genesis of the Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous Concept
  3. "Houbolt". Retrieved 2010-09-01. 
  4. NASA. (2015). John C, Houbolt.
  5. a b c Indiania University. Enchanted Rendezvous.
  6. Bernstein, Adam. (2015). Robert Seamans Jr., 89; Scientist Led Push for Manned Space Flights.
  7. NASA. Dr Maxime A. Faget.
  8. NASA. About Project Mercury.
  9. New Mexico Museum of Space History. Maxime A. Faget.
  10. a b Houbolt, John. (1961). Letter to Seamans.
  11. Houbolt Interview, 24 August 1989, p. 15; Hacker and Grimwood, On the Shoulders of Titans, p. 15-16.