#BookReview – John Houbolt: The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings

#BookReview – John Houbolt:  The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

William F. Causey, John Houbolt:  The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 2020. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 347 pp.


There has been no cooling in the publication of space-related material in the aftermath of the Apollo 11 50th Anniversary. Partially in response to NASA’s returning astronauts to space from American soil this year and partially in response to an undeniable zeitgeist, NASA is enjoying renewed popular support. This provides an excellent opportunity for the publication of further scholarship about the history of the organisation. Academic presses (Florida, Nebraska, and Purdue) have been working hard to expand, and further our understanding of not only crewed exploration of the cosmos, but also the choices made in advance of rockets leaving the launch pad. To that end, Purdue University has recently published John Houbolt:  The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings by William F. Causey. Causey’s Houbolt examines NASA’s decision-making process through the lens of an individual. This approach places emphasis on the members of NASA–this is their story and not the story of the astronauts riding rockets. That being said, Causey’s book is no less amazing than the stories of the astronauts themselves and by pulling back the curtain, Causey deftly reveals the backstory and offers a fresh look at how NASA ultimately decided the method that would lead to footprints on the moon.

My introduction to the mind of John Houbolt, and I would wager some our readers as well, came in the form of the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon (based in part off the book A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin). In the episode ‘Spider,’ Houbolt is shown as the ‘voice in the wilderness’ who bravely stood against senior NASA leaders to preach the gospel of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) as the preferred method of sending astronauts to the moon.

Causey’s work demonstrates that the history of LOR is richer than just Houbolt’s contributions and the entire work is as much a history of NASA’s early years and its decision-making process as it is about Houbolt himself. This is a book about how we got to the moon, or rather, about how NASA decided how we would get to the moon. Causey’s work covers the period from roughly 1957 to 1963 and represents a comprehensive and readable history of NASA’s early years, but one that still brings a fresh and nuanced perspective to a familiar story.

On 24 July 1962, Dr John Houbolt explained his lunar orbit rendezvous concept for landing on the Moon. His approach called for a separate lander which saved weight from the ‘direct ascent’ design in which the entire spacecraft landed on the lunar surface. (Source: NASA)

This is a vital book as it refocuses attention on the thousands of people who aided our ascension to deep space for the first time. While the written record has generally favoured the importance of the astronauts themselves in numerous books, biographies, and autobiographies, the recent trend in focus on the individuals behind the scenes has improved our understanding of the golden age of NASA and crewed spaceflight. Causey’s biography of Houbolt now sits alongside other recent publications including Sonny Tsiao’s Piercing the Horizon: The Story of Visionary NASA Chief Tom Paine, Richard Jurek’s The Ultimate Engineer: The Remarkable Life of NASA’s Visionary Leader George M. Low and Rick Houston and Milt Heflin’s Go, Flight! The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965-1992. This is important for several reasons, but perhaps most of all because these books continue to expand our understanding of NASA as an organisation composed of thousands and not as one whose principal employees are those at the end of propellant-fueled rockets.

Causey writes with a deftness and a flair that keeps the narrative moving forward even when the subject matter is the Space Task Group, the Goett Committee, the New Projects Panel or any number of other bureaucratic organisations in the NASA hierarchy. This work never feels like you are reading the history of an organisational board meeting, but adroitly describes how the workers at the various levels of NASA made the important decisions necessary that made the entire Apollo program possible. If you are picking up this work, there stands a good chance you have more than a passing understanding of NASA’s history and organisation, and while you might be familiar with the LOR story, Causey’s telling through the lens of Houbolt is worth a read even if you think you have read it all already and neither the scholar nor the buff will be disappointed. This is an essential and much-needed addition to the history of the Apollo Program. Causey’s John Houbolt:  The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings is a critical and stimulating look at the individual of John Houbolt, but also at NASA writ large.

Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. He is also the author of Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force.  He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found online at www.BrianLaslie.com

Header Image: A view of the Apollo 11 lunar module Eagle as it returned from the surface of the moon to dock with the command module Columbia. A smooth mare area is visible on the Moon below and a half-illuminated Earth hangs over the horizon. The lunar module ascent stage was about 4 meters across. (Source: NASA)