John C. Houbolt dies at 95; NASA engineer made moon landing possible

John C. Houbolt explains the size of different rockets required to land on the moon at Grainger Engineering Library at the University of Illinois in 2003.

John C. Houbolt, an engineer whose contributions to the U.S. space program were vital to NASA’s successful moon landing in 1969, has died. He was 95.

Houbolt died April 15 at a nursing home in Scarborough, Maine, of complications from Parkinson’s disease, said his son-in-law, Tucker Withington of Plymouth, Mass.

As NASA describes on its website, while under pressure during the U.S.-Soviet space race, Houbolt was the catalyst in securing U.S. commitment to the science and engineering theory that eventually carried the Apollo crew to the moon and back safely.

His efforts in the early 1960s are largely credited with convincing NASA to focus on the launch of a module carrying a crew from lunar orbit, rather than a rocket from Earth or other method.


Houbolt argued that a lunar orbit rendezvous, or LOR, would not only be less mechanically and financially onerous than building a huge rocket to take man to the moon or launching a craft while orbiting the Earth, but LOR was the only option to meet President Kennedy’s challenge to reach the moon before the end of the decade.

NASA describes “the bold step of skipping proper channels” that Houbolt took by pushing the issue in a private letter in 1961 to an incoming administrator.

“Do we want to go to the moon or not?” Houbolt asks. “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.”

Houbolt started his career with NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, in Hampton, Va., in 1942. He left in 1963 to work for an aeronautical research and consulting firm in Princeton, N.J., then returned to NASA in 1976 as chief aeronautical scientist at Langley Field Center in Virginia. He retired in 1985 but continued private consulting work.


Born April 10, 1919, in Altoona, Iowa, Houbolt grew up in Joliet, Ill., and earned degrees in civil engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He received a doctorate from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Zurich in 1957.

He and his wife, Mary, had three daughters.