But where Houbolt really stands out is that he went over the heads of his bosses and wrote a letter directly to the Apollo project head, Robert Seamens (six org-chart layers above him), thus circumventing channels. He said he was absolutely convinced that the planned approach was a dead end, his alternative was viable, and he could make a case for it. He was not being a team player, that's for sure.
This story isn't based on hearsay or rumor; it is fully documented, the letter exists, and is supported by interviews with many of the NASA staff. (An excellent book on the Apollo program, the people who made it happen, the issues they faced, and the way they overcame countless technical and organizational problems is Apollo: The Race to the Moon by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox.)
Long story short: Eventually, the challenges of implementing the planned "conventional" approach just became overwhelming. As the design approach got firmer, the numbers just wouldn’t add up for success, while the risk of backing down to the moon's surface and then blasting off started to look as high as, or higher than, the "crazy" lunar-orbit approach. NASA's thinking shifted steadily to Houbolt's "out of the box" idea. See the flight plan, below.
A detail of Houbolt's mission plan to the moon. Click here for a larger image.
Once his idea was accepted as the only possible way to proceed and succeed, all the underlying engineering assumptions and constraints changed dramatically as well. Designing a lander that had to operate only in the low-g environment of the moon, and which would be discarded when done with its mission, redefined the basics of the problem. The lander became a lightweight, non-aerodynamic, awkward-looking vehicle that would be otherwise considered too flimsy to survive Earth's gravity and stress.
Not only did Houbolt act as a loner to pursue a radically innovative idea and back it up with numbers (to the modest extent possible), but he risked his professional career by pushing it and being a pain within his organization about it. While we now take Earth-orbit rendezvous as routine, and even treat rendezvous around the moon and Mars as "no big deal," it took real courage and guts to suggest it as a solution in the early days of the Apollo program. Then to have to fight within your organization to have them, at least, listen: That's a tough battle.
So here’s to the memory of John Houbolt, who braved conventional wisdom and not only lived (organizationally) to tell about it despite personal derision, but also saw his "weird" ideas and promotion of them come to reality as the only feasible solution.
You don't see much of that courage anytime, anywhere. And I wonder: Do we really now have less of it?