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John Houbolt, as a young boy, plays with a model plane.

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth,"

— President John F. Kennedy to Congress, May 25, 1961.

 “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, … because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

 — President John F. Kennedy at Rice University, Sept. 12, 1962.

 The nation redeemed President Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric and dramatic prose when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon 50 years ago at 10:56 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time July 20 (9:56 p.m. in Illinois).

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong famously said.

But for the longest time, no one was exactly sure how to get a man to the moon — or more importantly — how to get him back.

The man who solved the problem, the real guy with “The Right Stuff” was a now-forgotten Illinois man, John C. Houbolt, of Joliet. Houbolt was the father of the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous approach.

Without Houbolt, there’s no lunar module with Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Without Houbolt, there’s no Michael Collins orbiting the moon above them in the command module. The entire concept was Houbolt’s.

Yet from the movies “October Sky” to “The Right Stuff” to “Apollo 13,” his image has not dented popular history. There’s no “Hidden Figures” treatment for John Houbolt.

I’ve toured Cape Kennedy on several occasions and never heard his name mentioned. Houbolt does get a small slice in the 12-part HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon,” where he is played by Reed Birney. Just out, too, is a new audiobook, “The Man Who Knew the Way to the Moon,” by Todd Zwillich.

“There’s no doubt he (Houbolt) was the unsung hero,” says Heather Bigeck, curator of collections at the Joliet Area Historical Museum, 204 N. Ottawa. 

The museum has a two-story display devoted by Houbolt and has a free admission day this Friday (July 19) in his honor.

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John Houbolt Day was celebrated on Sept. 18, 1969, in Joliet.

On Sept. 18, 1969, less than two weeks after the moon landing, Joliet held “John Houbolt Day.” The street leading up to Joliet Junior College, where Houbolt had studied, was renamed for him. It remains Houbolt Road today.

Houbolt spoke at Joliet Junior College in 1972 and was given an Alumni Achievement Award in 1986. In addition to the museum exhibit, Houbolt is also remembered locally as part of the City of Joliet mural system. His panel was painted near the Union Station.

Houbolt died in 2014, in Scarborough, Maine, from complications attributed to Parkinson’s disease. He was 95. His official papers now rest in the archives at the University of Illinois.

A goal without a plan

When Kennedy made his passionate promise, NASA was stunned, according to an analysis in The New York Times. There was no real scientific analysis on actually going to the moon.

The approach favored by Wernher von Braun, the former German scientist who was NASA’s mastermind, was to build a huge rocket and launch directly from the Earth to the Moon. This approach was known as Nova, the Times said.

The second general idea, as described by the Times, was to launch a craft into Earth orbit. A module would then travel from Earth-orbit to the moon.

Houbolt’s genius was to come up, alone, with what would be the solution. Put a module into orbit around the moon. While one module remained in orbit around the moon, a smaller portion of it would descend to the moon’s surface. Part of it would then be launched from the moon and join up with the orbiting spacecraft.

Von Braun had rejected Houbolt’s vision. Among other strikes against Houbolt was the fact that his background was in aeronautics, not in rocketry.

One NASA executive said, “Houbolt has a scheme that has a 50 percent chance of getting a man to the moon and a one percent of getting him back.”

So Houbolt took the unorthodox step of skipping proper channels. He wrote a nine-page letter in November 1961 to an associate administrator of NASA. Houbolt was sufficiently unknown in the chain of command that he felt obliged to include a sentence that he was not a “crank.”

To understand how bold Houbolt’s idea was, it came at a time when no American had yet to orbit the Earth (John Glenn would do that Feb. 20, 1962), let alone orbit the moon.

Houbolt’s direct challenge to the powers that be: “Do we want to go to the moon or not?”

Houbolt explained his plan as one using a Chevrolet, not a Cadillac. The gargantuan rocket approach would have been much more expensive. Houbolt later estimated that his idea saved the country $20 billion and sped up the lunar landing by three years. Today, nearly 60 years after he first proposed it, it remains the only way men have ever landed on the moon.

Houbolt’s proposal was first taken up by Robert C. Seamans Jr., the associate administrator at NASA and later by Joseph F. Shea, the top assistant to the head of manned spaceflight. By July, 1962, Houbolt’s proposal was enshrined as the NASA plan.

“He was brilliant,” says Arthur Maurer, the director of the planetarium at Joliet Junior College. Maurer regularly gives presentations on the Apollo program. “It takes a certain amount of arrogance,” Maurer says to buck the chain of command.

From Joliet to Mission Control

Houbolt had been born in Altoona, Iowa. His family moved to Illinois when he was a child. His interest in flight was evident as a young child, Bigeck says. Oral histories collected from his family list such childhood experiments as putting wings on a baby buggy and jumping from a hayloft with an umbrella.

He was a builder of model airplanes and once tried soaking their wings in a bathtub full of banana oil, an effort that gave a certain tang to the next set of family baths.

He was one of four in a farm family. His parents, who had not gone to college, were determined that their next generation would. Houbolt played the drums at Joliet Central High School and then studied civil engineering at Joliet Junior College. Moving on to the University of Illinois, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering.

He joined NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), the NASA forerunner in 1942. He received his doctorate from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in 1957.

He left NASA in 1963 to work for Aeronautical Research Associates of Princeton but returned to NASA in 1976. During the 1969 moon flight, von Braun personally invited Houbolt to Mission Control to see the results of his plan.

Today the Joliet Area Historical Museum exhibit in his honor is “The Soaring Achievements of John C. Houbolt.” There had also been an exhibit as part of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing.

If you stand on the first story of the museum and look up, it’s as if you are seeing the LEM on the way to the moon. Go up to the second story and look down, and you see the Earth as Armstrong and Aldrin would have seen it.

There is a replica of Houbolt’s concept of the lunar spacecraft on exhibit, a concoction of wood and paperclips. You can watch a tape of the launch. The museum also has the oral histories from his family and a display of the technologies the moon missions passed down to us, everything from the cordless screwdriver to prosthetic limbs.

Sources: Joliet Junior College newsroom; StarDate Online; Legacy.com obituary; The New York Times; NASA News; Wikipedia; interviews with Joliet Junior College Planetarium (Arthur Maurer) and Joliet Area Historical Museum (Heather Bigeck).

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