The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings: Q&A with William F. Causey

In this interview, we talk with author William F. Causey about his forthcoming book John Houbolt: The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings.

John Houbolt tells the story of NASA engineer John Houbolt, and his advocacy for Lunar Orbit Rendevous (LOR) as the preferred method for getting American astronauts to the moon and back.


Q: What piqued your interest into the story of John Houbolt and the LOR decision?

William F. Causey: Beginning with the 15-minute Mercury flight of Alan Shepard in May 1961, through all the Apollo moon landings and then with the thrilling robotic landings on Mars and probes to the outer planets, I have been fascinated with our space program. As a youngster I followed every flight and read every book on space flight. In 1995, I read Jim Hansen’s Spaceflight Revolution, his book on the history of the Langley Research Center, and I became enthralled with the chapter on John Houbolt and the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) decision. I wanted to learn more, but there was not much material on Houbolt or how the LOR decision was made. I began to compile my own research, and during one summer, I examined Houbolt’s voluminous papers that he had donated to the University of Illinois. Upon my return to Washington, I wrote him a letter (before the days of email) asking if I could meet and interview him. To my surprise, Houbolt invited my wife and me to Maine where John and his wife Mary were retired. We had a marvelous weekend talking about NASA and John’s role in the LOR decision. I had the good fortune to talk with John several times before his death in 2014 at the age of 95. I realized from these discussions that the LOR decision brought together all the amazing management and engineering talent that was at the core of the great adventure we call Apollo, and that it was largely this mid-level engineer from Langley who eventually convinced everyone that LOR was the only way to land astronauts on the moon and return them safely to earth by the end of the decade. I decided that Houbolt’s role in the LOR story needed a more complete examination, and my book tells that amazing story.


Q: Why do you think it took so long for this story to get told in full?

Causey: The Apollo story – perhaps the greatest adventure and achievement in human history – was told largely through the eyes of the astronauts, the people who took the journeys, which we as a nation followed with awe and wonder. Our collective experience in space involved watching dramatic launches and looking at captivating colorful photographs of the earth from space and of the gray and black “desolation” of the lunar surface. Very little attention was devoted during Apollo to the thousands of men and women who worked behind the scenes to make Apollo a successful endeavor.

The John Houbolt story of lunar orbit rendezvous took place during the early days of Project Mercury – indeed, Americans had been in space a total of six and one-half hours when NASA adopted the LOR lunar mode in July 1962. At that time, space rendezvous and docking were still years in the future. Although many people, primarily at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, contributed to the development of the LOR concept, John Houbolt was the Langley engineer who perhaps knew the most about orbital rendezvous. He became the person to promote LOR to a skeptical and at times hostile NASA management. While we understand today that thousands of people built the space hardware and software, manned the control and tracking stations, and worked with the astronauts during the training and flights, we did not know at the time that the idea of how to land men on the moon and return them safely to earth largely was the result of the persistence and tenacity of one person.

The Houbolt story was not widely known outside NASA until Jim Hansen’s book Spaceflight Revolution, published in 1995, about the history of the Langley Research Center. Hansen’s book contained only one short chapter on Houbolt and the the LOR story. My book attempts to expand on Hansen’s excellent chapter and provides the historical foundation for how NASA made the LOR decision that produced the astonishing feats of the Apollo program.


Q: How does telling Houbolt’s story affect the legacy of the Apollo program as a whole?

Causey: The lasting legacy of the Apollo program was that this nation could accomplish a seemingly insurmountable but truly momentous undertaking when the minds and resources of the country focused with laser precision on that one national goal. My book shows how dozens of truly remarkable and brilliant people fought hard to achieve the objective of getting a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. John Houbolt was one of many great minds who participated in that thrilling adventure, but it was his tenacity and persistence in promoting the LOR idea, at first against enormous opposition and even open hostility, that finally provided NASA with the direction to get to the moon.


Q: Do you feel the fate of the program would be different without Houbolt’s persistence? Were any of the other methods truly viable?

Causey: When President Kennedy proposed in May 1961 that America should achieve the goal, before the end of the decade, of landing a man on the moon and returning him to earth, NASA had no idea how to do that. Although NASA considered two landing options, called Direct Ascent and Earth Orbit Rendezvous, it became apparent that neither plan was technically feasible. Several engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center, led by John Houbolt, proposed a third option, called Lunar Orbit Rendezvous. The LOR mode involved sending two crafts to the moon. The smaller, lighter spacecraft, called the lunar module, would take two astronauts to the lunar surface while the third astronaut stayed in lunar orbit in the larger command module. The two astronauts would take off from the moon and rendezvous in lunar orbit with the third astronaut before all three would return to earth in the command module. At first NASA flatly rejected Houbolt’s LOR idea, with several NASA planning committees even refusing to consider the concept. But after Houbolt wrote two letters to NASA management that placed his career in jeopardy, and after spirited internal debate involving the clash of powerful egos, NASA finally adopted Houbolt’s LOR idea in July 1962. And, of course, the United States landed men on the moon in 1969.

It is virtually certain that America would not have landed astronauts on the moon by the end of the 1960s if NASA had not adopted the LOR concept. There would not have been enough time to build and test the lunar lander and Saturn V rocket, perfect orbital rendezvous and docking techniques, conduct long-duration flights in the Gemini program, and master the mathematics of trajectory to and from the moon. Although it is likely that the United States would have eventually landed on the moon given enough time and money using Direct Ascent or Earth Orbit Rendezvous, what makes the Houbolt story so compelling is that without his persistence, Apollo 11 surely would not have landed on the moon and returned safely to earth in July 1969.


Q: It seems in the process of getting to the moon it took some pretty big pushes (e.g., John Houbolt’s persistence, the Apollo 1 tragedy), to get NASA going in the correct direction. It’s been quite some time since the US has been to the moon. Do you think the country is missing that push now?

Causey: The Apollo program was a huge undertaking that began months before President Kennedy committed the nation to a manned lunar landing. Engineers and scientists began seriously thinking of sending men to the moon years before NASA was created in 1958. But once President Kennedy proposed a manned lunar landing in May 1961, NASA had to quickly agree on a way to get to the moon. Fortunately, the idea of landing a man on the moon captured the imagination of Congress as well as the public, and there was more than adequate public funding and private initiative to get Apollo started and underway. As my book shows, the LOR decision –a major aspect of getting to the moon and back – was not an easy decision for numerous technical and managerial reasons. The significant events that led to the ultimate success of the Apollo moon landings, such as the accomplishments of Projects Mercury and Gemini, the development of the Saturn V rocket, remarkable advancements in computer technology, and a largely workable but expensive partnership between government and private industry, enabled the United States to land a man on the moon by July 1969.

To be sure, there were major delays, disappointments, and tragedies along the way as well. The March 1966 aborted Gemini 8 flight that almost took the lives of the crew made NASA appreciate with greater acuity the dangers of space flight. The Apollo 1 fire in January 1967 that took the lives of the crew on the test pad was a major setback that demonstrated the poor design and shoddy workmanship of the Apollo command module, but that resulted in a much-improved spacecraft. The long delays in the development of the lunar lander that led to the bold but risky flight of Apollo 8, and the delays in the development of the Saturn V booster that required an expedited all-ups testing schedule, helped NASA come together and overcome the tragedy of Apollo 1. Indeed, one of the central threads of the remarkable Apollo story is how NASA adapted to the vagaries of the program to meet the end-of-the decade deadline.

Humans have not walked on the moon since December 1972 – a span of almost five decades. Although the United States has expressed a desire to return to the moon by 2024, it is unlikely that that will happen. To begin with, we need to have the same collective national will that we had in 1961, and it does not appear that such collective will exists at this time. Returning men – and women – to the moon will be an expensive and complex project that will equal or surpass the Apollo program. And returning humans to the moon will have to compete with the less expensive and safer means of space exploration with robotics. In all likelihood, NASA will have to partner with the existing private space industry, and the United States will have to partner with other nations such as China, Russia, India, and Japan, to share the cost and risk of future human space travel. Returning to the moon will have to be a global undertaking in all respects.

Yet, we can be certain that one day people will walk on the moon again, and journey to Mars and the asteroids, just as we knew in the 1950s that humans would travel beyond the bounds of earth. It is an adventure worth pursuing.


Thank you to William Causey for taking the time to answer our questions! If you would like to learn more about the book, you can find him at Politics & Prose on Sunday, March 15 from 1-2 pm.

You can get 30% off John Houbolt and any other Purdue University Press books by ordering from our website and using the discount code PURDUE30.