It didn't get much coverage in the TV news (I guess there was just so much more important celebrity gossip to report), but John Houbolt passed away recently at age 95. Who was he?
In short, he's the man responsible for the profile of the Apollo moon landings, centered on the idea of using a dedicated, partially disposable lunar lander to shuttle astronauts from an orbit around the Moon to its surface and then back. While he did not claim to originate the idea (it's not clear who did, nor when), he championed it and made the case as often as he could, despite severe pushback and organizational objections.
John Houbolt explains his concept for landing on the moon.
You may wonder, "What's the big deal?" But it's a big deal for several reasons. At the time he worked on it, there had not even been any manned orbital flights around Earth, let alone vehicle rendezvous and docking, and certainly none around the moon. No one knew if such a complex set of maneuvers was possible in basic Earth orbit; to do it around the Moon seemed impossible. Orbital mechanics and navigation are quite difficult and unforgiving, especially when you are so clearly fuel-limited. (It was so complicated that Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11's lunar module pilot, did his MIT dissertation on the mechanics of orbital rendezvous.)
The conventional wisdom, supported by Wernher von Braun and on down at NASA, was that a moon landing would consist of a rocket launch from Earth, a brief stop for an Earth-orbit rendezvous, and then going directly to a moon landing, discarding stages along the way. The last stage would "back down" to the Moon and land gently upright, as you have seen in all those classic movies of the 1950s (such as Destination Moon). Return to Earth would require a lift-off of that final stage from the Moon's surface for a non-stop, direct trip home.
Houbolt did his own assessment of the assumed direct-to-moon-and-back approach, and said it just wouldn't work when you considered all of the weight, fuel, and risk issues. He made a strong case for his alternative, but the NASA establishment made an equally good case, at least initially. (Many engineers up and down the organizational chain were pretty merciless in criticizing his ideas and figures.)
Keep in mind that at this point in the Apollo project, just about everything about the fundamental design and specifics was somewhere between a rough estimate and a wild guess, with thousands of technical unknowns from basic rocket and capsule structure to propulsion, weight, and guidance issues. Everyone was stumbling around in the dark.
To Page 2: Houbolt pushes on