Friday, July 12, 2019

The Man Who Knew the Way to the Moon, by Todd Zwillich (author), Angelo Di Loreto (narrator)

Audible Studios, July 2019

John C. Houboldt was a airplane engineer who worked for NASA, and became interested, in some ways obsessed with, the Moon program that he logically ought to have no role in.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were already, before President Kennedy ever made his speech committing the US to get to the Moon and back before the end of the 1960s, space program scientists were already working on how to do it. There were three basic approaches--the direct approach, using a single large rocket to lift from Earth, land on its tail on the Moon, and return home; Earth rendezvous, lifting smaller units into Earth orbit and the vehicle to reach the Moon there; and lunar orbital rendezvous. Lunar orbital rendezvous is the methods used in the end: the command module waiting in lunar orbit while the lunar lander brought two members of the crew to the surface of the Moon and back.

Lunar orbital rendezvous may seem inevitable now, but initially it was the least-favored serious approach. John C. Houboldt, first-generation American, son of Dutch immigrants, airplane engineer rather than a rocket engineer, heard the debate going on, did his own research--and became a major, and persistent, advocate for lunar orbital rendezvous as the only way to get to the Moon by Kennedy's deadline.

Houboldt's time at NASA was contentious and stressful for him. Some of his troubles may have been due to personality conflicts as much as disagreement over his ideas. Yet he never claimed to have originated the lunar orbital rendezvous plan, and his advocacy for it, in addition to being correct, probably played a major role in the plan being adopted.

Zwillich gives us an even-handed and really interesting account of this part of NASA history.


This was one of Audible's free offerings for members this month.

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