#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.

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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.

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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)

#BookReview – Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind

#BookReview – Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

James R. Hansen, Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2019. Appendix. Notes. Hbk. 400 pp.

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Twenty-nineteen represented, for me, a golden age of space nostalgia. Twenty-eighteen through to 2022 represents the fiftieth anniversaries of the 11 human-crewed Apollo flights. Everywhere you turn you see someone in some NASA paraphernalia. Books on the Apollo program and NASA writ large are taking over the Science sections at local bookstores and larger chain stores. The government organisation is enjoying an undeniable resurgence and moment of ‘coolness,’ though I ponder whether anyone under the age of 40 uses that term. Perhaps no single individual enjoyed a greater resurgence in this regard over the last two years than the first man on the moon, Neil A. Armstrong. Twenty-eighteen saw the release of the film First Man, based on the authorised biography of the same name by James R. Hansen. The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission witnessed the release of CNN Film’s Apollo 11 documentary and those in Washington DC were even able to witness the Saturn V launch from the Washington Memorial.

Hansen returns to his topic with the release of Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind. At its core, the book is simply a collection of letters, a representative sample of the hundreds of thousands of letters that were sent to Armstrong before, during, and after his mission; a series of letters that lasted until his death in 2012. This correspondence is now held in the Purdue University Archives as part of Armstrong’s papers. Hansen indicated that this book is the first of at least two books covering the trove of correspondence now housed at Purdue University.

Hansen’s preface included the words given to Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin Aldrin printed on a small silicon-disc and left on the surface of the moon. Much like the rest of the book, Hansen only included samples. From Félix Houphouët-Boigny, President of the Ivory Coast (p. xiv), ‘I especially wish that he would turn towards our planet Earth and cry out how insignificant the problems which torture men are when viewed from up there.’ John Gorton, Prime Minister of Australia (p. xv), chose to quote Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses ‘to strive, to seek, and to find, and not to yield.’ The disc remains at the foot of the Lunar Module Descent Stage where Aldrin dropped it while climbing back into the Module.

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A ticker tape parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts in Manhattan, New York City on the section of Broadway known as the ‘Canyon of Heroes.’ Pictured in the lead car, from the right, are astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. (Source: Wikimedia)

The book is divided into thematic chapters: ‘First Word,’ presents correspondence that poured in during the weeks leading up to the launch of Apollo 11 and deals with letters giving Armstrong advice on what to say. ‘Congratulations and Welcome Home’ samples some of the hundreds-of-thousands cards and messages that poured into Armstrong’s inbox in the immediate aftermath of the mission from military service secretaries, general officers, old friends, and civic leaders. Chapter three entitled ‘The Soviets,’ contains selections from the letters that came in from behind the Iron Curtin including from leaders and citizens of Poland, Serbia, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Hungary. Congratulations from behind the wall also came from fellow Soviet Cosmonauts. Perhaps no better chapter demonstrates how the Apollo 11 mission was viewed as a globally unifying event. ‘For all Mankind’ contains the letters coming in from women, men, and children of all ages all around the globe.

The final three chapters go especially well together: Many Americans wanted a piece of what they considered to be their man on the moon and these letters are found in the chapters ‘From all America,’ ‘Reluctantly Famous,’ and ‘The Principled Citizen.’ Many of the appeals were harmless requests for autographs and at higher levels requests for appearances, but some requests were outright bizarre. For example, one letter requested an impression of Armstrong’s foot in clay (p. 161).  Hansen has done a superb job of providing the breadth of requests made to Armstrong in the years following his return to Earth. The simple fact remains that too many of us asked for too much of this man who simply could not respond and give of all he was asked to do.

It would be remiss if I did not ponder what this book tells us about air and space power? As I poured through the selected letters and pondered the many thousands more that Hansen could not include, it became clear that there was and remains to this day something ephemeral and special about crewed spaceflight. The book brought to mind the importance of Joseph Corn’s The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation (1983); however, it also demonstrated that the romance with crewed spaceflight is not unique to America at all. In America and around the world, the love and excitement for space exploration were undoubtedly not monolithic, but Armstrong became the embodiment for those who recognised the crewed Apollo missions as something significant and special in the history of mankind.

Dear Neil Armstrong will appeal to those seeking a deeper understanding of what the Apollo program meant, much like Roger D. Launius’ magnificent Apollo’s Legacy, but Hansen’s reaches us on a deeper personal level here. Hansen’s First Man is and will remain, the definitive biography of Armstrong, but the collection Hansen has put together is a must-have for those seeking to understand the more profound social and cultural meaning of Apollo, namely how the world viewed this particular man and what it desired of him in return. As Hansen more eloquently reflected (p. xxiii), ‘[c]ertainly it is my own conclusion that the letters ultimately tell us more about ourselves than they do about Neil.’

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. His recently published 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 on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: Neil Armstrong is seen here next to the X-15 ship #1 after a research flight. Armstrong made his first X-15 flight on November 30, 1960, in the #1 X-15. He made his second flight on December 9, 1960, in the same aircraft. This was the first X-15 flight to use the ball nose, which provided accurate measurement of airspeed and flow angle at supersonic and hypersonic speeds. The servo-actuated ball nose can be seen in this photo in front of Armstrong’s right hand. The X-15 employed a non-standard landing gear. It had a nose gear with a wheel and tire, but the main landing consisted of skids mounted at the rear of the vehicle. In the photo, the left skid is visible, as are marks on the lakebed from both skids. Because of the skids, the rocket-powered aircraft could only land on a dry lakebed, not on a concrete runway.