Monday, July 29, 2019

Review: The Man Who Knew The Way to the Moon

The Man Who Knew The Way to the Moon The Man Who Knew The Way to the Moon by Todd Zwillich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was reading something about the 50th anniversary of the moon landing recently, and one thing that caught my eye was that apparently over 400,000 people worked on various projects related making that happen. I’d say that out of all them, the contribution of John Houbolt may be the most controversial.

Houbolt was an engineer at NASA who became an advocate for Lunar Orbit Rendezvous. In the early days of trying to get to the moon most everyone thought that the way to do it was to either build an enormous rocket that would make the entire round trip or that a ship would have to be assembled in Earth orbit and then sent to the moon. The thing about LOR was that by taking a light landing craft it would save having to get an enormous amount of weight, mostly fuel, to the moon and back. The problem was that it would mean that two spacecraft would have to rendezvous in lunar orbit, and at a time when nobody had docked in Earth orbit yet that seemed extremely dangerous, maybe even impossible.

So when most of the NASA committees and big wigs were trying to make decisions the idea of LOR was usually quickly crossed off the list. However, Houbolt had done an extensive analysis of the numbers, and to him it was clear that LOR was the only way to get to the moon by the deadline John F. Kennedy had set for the country so he started to relentlessly push the idea even when he was dismissed out of hand. Sometimes he was met with outright hostility like when another engineer angrily declared that Houbolt’s numbers were a lie in a meeting with some of the top NASA people.

Although frequently hurt and frustrated, Houbolt refused to take no for an answer and continued to push LOR, and he even risked his job by skipping the chain of command and sending letters and his report to one of the top men in NASA. Eventually the tide turned and LOR was adopted as the strategy to get to the moon. Yet, Houbolt was almost immediately shut out, and many in NASA began downplaying his role. Houbolt would end up leaving the agency just months after the decision was made, and for the rest of his life he’d insist that he hadn’t received the credit he was due.

The counterpoint to that is that Houbolt didn’t create the idea of LOR, he was just a believer who pushed it. So the NASA attitude was often that while Houbolt was an early advocate for LOR that other people were also studying it too, and that the idea was so logical that it surely would have been used even without Houbolt’s efforts.

The other odd factor is that Houbolt did, in fact, receive a lot of recognition. NASA awarded him a commendation at the time, he was interviewed and profiled in the media including Time magazine, he was invited back to NASA to witness the moon landing from Mission Control where Werner von Braun thanked him personally, and his old hometown gave him a parade and named a street after him. Houbolt and his struggle were even briefly depicted in the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon back in 1998 so it’s not like he’d been completely ignored and forgotten. However, Houbolt was eventually denied a large cash award thanks to a NASA executive downplaying his importance so maybe that’s why he seemed to feel like he wasn’t given his due.

Another interesting aspect explored in this is that while LOR was probably the only way that America could have gotten to the moon by 1970, it might have been a mistake for long term space exploration. Some engineers were envisioning a whole orbital infrastructure that would be used to not just go to the moon, but beyond. By doing it the quickest way possible to make an arbitrary deadline NASA may have inadvertently set manned space exploration back by decades.

I very much enjoyed this as an Audible original I got as one of their freebies. There’s not really enough here for an entire non-fiction book, but the 3 ½ hours audio presentation including interviews and historical clips is just about the perfect way to learn about Houbolt and this story. It seems more like listening to a long NPR feature or podcast episode instead of a book, but it’s an intriguing side story for anyone interested in the Apollo landings.

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