An engineer, Houbolt was hired in 1942 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a federal agency founded on March 3, 1915, to undertake, promote, and institutionalize aeronautical research. In 1958, NACA was dissolved into a new agency, NASA, and Houbolt stayed on. Shortly after, NASA was tasked with “the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon, and returning him safely to the earth,” as President Kennedy put it in 1961. Legendary rocket scientist Werner von Braun knew how he wanted to accomplish the feat — but Houbolt disagreed with the science-fiction-like plan. “They were going to send a vehicle the size of [a 100-foot (30 meter)] Atlas [rocket] to the moon with absolutely zero help and land it backwards,” Houbolt said in 2008, when NASA interviewed him for the agency’s 50th anniversary. “I said, ‘It cannot be done.’” When he was overruled, Houbolt took a bold step, risking his entire career: he wrote a letter to NASA Associate Administrator Robert Seamans demanding, “Do we want to go to the moon or not? Why is a much less grandiose scheme involving rendezvous ostracized or put on the defensive? I fully realize that contacting you in this manner is somewhat unorthodox, but the issues at stake are crucial enough to us all that an unusual course is warranted.” The landing method Houbolt championed, Lunar Orbital Rendezvous, could use existing rocket technology to meet the goal, and was the only way to meet the goal by the presidential deadline, but it had been dismissed as “too complicated and risky.”
Houbolt said it “turned into a 2.5 year fight to convince people, because they wouldn’t even listen to it,” Houbolt said. “Why was there so much resistance to it? That’s a good question, and the only thing I can come up with is the syndrome of N.I.H. — not invented here.” Indeed, Houbolt didn’t invent LOR: it was first proposed by Ukranian engineer Yurk Kondratyuk — in 1916. But with Houbolt’s insistence, LOR got a second look, and was adopted as the flight method to get the job done. LOR used one spacecraft to get the astronauts to lunar orbit (and back to Earth), and another to go from lunar orbit to the moon’s surface and back, and required a rendezvous — a re-linking of the two spacecraft — in lunar orbit. “Had the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous Mode not been chosen, Apollo would not have succeeded,” said George Low in 1982; Low was the NASA Administrator at the time of the moon landings. Even von Braun came around. When Apollo 11’s Eagle lunar lander settled into the moon, von Braun turned around and looked at Houbolt, and “did the OK sign and said, ‘Thank you, John,’” Houbolt remembered. “That was one of the biggest rewards I’ve ever had.” Houbolt was also recognized with the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal. He retired from the agency in 1985, and died from Parkinson’s disease on April 15, five days after his 95th birthday.