By Scott Neuman
The Apollo program conjures images of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon and the massive team effort involved in getting him there. But a fundamental decision that led to the successful lunar landings came largely as a result of one man’s determination to buck the system at NASA.
That man was John C. Houbolt.
Houbolt’s vision of how to get to the moon prevailed over ideas pushed by NASA’s heaviest hitters, including the German-born rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who designed the Saturn V, and Max Faget, an émigré from British Honduras who was responsible for the Mercury capsule that put the first Americans into space.
In April 1961, President John F. Kennedy had energized America’s space program by pledging to send “a man to the moon and [return] him safely to the Earth” before the end of the 1960s. But at NASA, a fundamental question first had to be answered: What was the exact mode for getting to the moon? Without knowing that, it was impossible to even begin designing the machines to go there.
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