By Jim Arvantes, with William F. Causey
The cover of William F Causey’s book, “John Houbolt: The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings.”

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress and urged the United States to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade.

America’s space agency, NASA, had the herculean task of making Kennedy’s vision a reality. During the June 16 Tuesday webinar Talk, Woodley Park lawyer and historian, William F. Causey, talked about his new, highly-acclaimed book, John Houbolt: The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings, the story about how NASA made the decision to get Apollo astronauts to the moon and back. 

The book describes in detail the critical role played by a young, mid-level NASA engineer named John Houbolt, who lobbied relentlessly for a moon landing approach called Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, or LOR, despite widespread opposition and criticism from NASA colleagues.

After two years of intensive internal debate in the 1960s, NASA finally selected LOR as the mode to land men on the moon.

Childhood Fascination 

Causey, a retired lawyer, former adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center and current docent at the National Air and Space Museum, became fascinated with space after watching Alan Shepard’s space flight, the first by an American, on television in his elementary school gymnasium in Baltimore in May of 1961. Causey began to follow the space program closely, watching all of the launches on television and reading everything he could about the space initiative.

In 1995, Causey read a book by Auburn University historian James Hansen on the history of the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Hansen devoted a chapter to John Houbolt and the LOR story. After failing to find much information on Houbolt, Hansen encouraged Causey to research Houbolt’s life and work and write more about the LOR story. 

Causey first spent several days at the University of Illinois Library at Champaign-Urbana, where Houbolt obtained his degrees in engineering, reading the papers Houbolt donated after his retirement from NASA. Inspired by what he learned, Causey wrote a letter to Houbolt – this was before the days of email—who was then retired and living in Scarborough, Maine. 

The official NASA photo of John Houbolt.
Official NASA photo of John Houbolt.

Causey said in his letter that he was thinking about writing about the LOR story and asked if Houbolt would consent to an interview. Causey included his phone number. 

Several weeks went by and Causey received no response. Finally, Houbolt called Causey, and said he would be happy to meet with Causey and talk about the LOR story. Causey was on a plane to Maine one week later. 

Houbolt met with Causey several times over the next several years, and Causey talked at length about his work at NASA, and how he finally convinced the space agency to adopt the LOR mode to go to the moon. Causey’s last interview with Houbolt occurred several months before Houbolt died in 2014 at the age of 95.

Weighing the Options

In his book, Causey explains that NASA was considering a manned lunar program even before Kennedy announced the program in May 1961. Originally, NASA considered two options for getting to the moon.

The first option, known as Direct Descent, entailed one large launch vehicle sending a single ship directly to the moon and returning to earth. The second option, called Earth Orbit Rendezvous, proposed launching several rockets into low earth orbit, and assembling the lander in earth orbit before going to the moon.

Both of these modes, however, required landing a large vehicle on the lunar surface. Houbolt and his colleagues at Langley developed a third approach that involved sending two connected vehicles to the moon at the same time.

Once both vehicles arrived at the moon, two astronauts would fly down to the lunar surface in the smaller craft while the command module stayed in lunar orbit. After the astronauts completed their activities on the lunar surface, the lander would lift off from the moon and the two astronauts would rendezvous – in lunar orbit—with the command module. They would transfer into the command module and all three astronauts would return to earth.

Houbolt thought both NASA ideas were too big, too dangerous and too expensive. Houbolt began promoting the LOR concept, and immediately encountered resistance from other NASA engineers.

Houbolt persisted in his LOR idea, and eventually convinced NASA top management to adopt the LOR idea.

July 1962 NASA press conference announcing the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous.
Seated from left to right: Dr. Robert C. Seamans, Dr. Brainerd Holmes, and Dr. Joseph Francis Shea.

His Finest Moment

Houbolt’s proudest professional moment occurred in July 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Houbolt and others, including renowned NASA engineer Wernher von Braun watched the moon landing from NASA’s visitor’s center in Houston, Texas, overlooking Mission Control. (Von Braun developed the Saturn V rocket that took Americans to the moon.)

Houbolt, being quiet and reserved, sat in the back row of the 74-seat center while von Braun took a seat in the front row. As soon as Apollo 11 landed on the moon, the room erupted in cheers and celebration.

The Lunar Orbit Rendezvous during Apollo 17.

“Everyone is applauding,” said Causey, describing the scene. “The cigars came out, the flags are waving.”

When the celebration subsided, von Braun stood up and in his booming German accent, he asked for Houbolt, who was sitting quietly in the back of the room. Houbolt meekly raised his hand.

Von Braun, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, said, “John, if it hadn’t been for you, we would not have had this moment.”

“Houbolt later told me that was the proudest moment of his career,” said Causey. “It really vindicated everything he had been working so hard on.”

Editor’s Note
Anyone interested in America’s space program will find Causey’s book John Houbolt: The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings an indispensable part of the marvelous story we call Project Apollo.

Additional Reading
One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon