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VIDEO: Foster Recognizes NASA Engineer and Joliet Native John Houbolt

May 8, 2014
Press Release

Washington, DC – Today, Congressman Bill Foster (IL-11) spoke on the House floor to recognize NASA engineer and Joliet native Dr. John Houbolt. 

Houbolt, who grew up in Joliet, Illinois and attended Joliet Junior College, was a NASA engineer who played a critical role in the Apollo program.  Houbolt died on April 15, 2014 at the age of 95.

Video of Foster’s speech is available here.  

Full text of Foster’s speech is below:

Mr. Chairman, I rise today to honor John Houbolt, a native of Joliet, Illinois who was one of the great unsung heroes of the Apollo program.

Politicians are fond of citing President Kennedy’s famous speech –  made in this room at a joint session of Congress more than 50 years ago – to “commit this nation, before this decade is out, to landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

Politicians like to imagine that anything is possible, if the right politician and speechwriter can muster just the right words to stir people into action.

But engineers know differently. 

If you do not have a workable engineering concept, and a set of design parameters that respects both available resource limitations and engineering reality, then no amount of fine words from politicians are going to make any difference.

Dr. John Houbolt provided that crucial engineering concept that made the 10-year success of the Apollo program possible.

John Houbolt came from humble beginnings, working 16 hours a day on his family’s dairy farm in Joliet, Illinois where he developed an early interest in aviation, building model airplanes in his free time. 

He graduated from Joliet Township High School and Joliet Junior College, and obtained a Bachelor and Master’s Degree at the University of Illinois in civil engineering.

He then went on to obtain a PhD and serve as an engineer in NASA’s Langley Research Center.

His contributions to the U.S. Space Program in the 1960’s were vital to NASA’s successful moon landing.

He was best known for his advocacy of lunar-orbit rendezvous, the crucial mission design decision that proved essential to carry the Apollo crew safely to the moon and back in 1969.

Dr. Houbolt, along with several of his colleagues at Langley, became convinced that this relatively obscure technique was the only feasible way to land on the moon by the end of the decade.

Initially, NASA rejected Dr. Houbolt’s plan for being too complicated and risky.

But like the world’s greatest innovators, Dr. Houbolt didn’t let initial failure stop him.

Despite opposition from NASA, and from leading rocket scientists at the time, Dr. Houbolt tenaciously advocated for lunar-orbit rendezvous.

To convince the decision makers at NASA to consider his plan, Dr. Houbolt took the bold step of writing a letter directly to the Associate Administrator of NASA, a clear breach of protocol.

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

Because of his tenacity, NASA gave his idea another chance, and eventually approved it.

John Houbolt won that argument, despite having all of the political winds blowing against him, because he had fundamental engineering reality on his side.

It was simply not possible, with engines and boosters that could plausibly be developed in the 1960’s, to launch a payload that would allow a manned rocket to land in its entirety on the moon, including all of the fuel necessary to return to earth.

But as John Houbolt pointed out, that if you left the fuel for the return trip in lunar orbit, and rendezvoused with the command module after making the lunar landing, then a single Saturn booster, already under design at the Marshall Space Flight Center, could do the job.

NASA Administrator George Low later said of this pivotal moment: “It is my strongly held opinion that without the Lunar Rendezvous Mode, Apollo would not have succeeded; and without John Houbolt’s letter, we might not have chosen the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous Mode.”

The Lunar Rendezvous Mode has been described by Space Historians as “Langley’s most important contribution to the Apollo program” and is widely credited for allowing the United States to accomplish the goal President John F. Kennedy’s set out in 1961 to land on the moon by the end of the decade.

Dr. Houbolt was often known as a “voice in the wilderness.” His persistence and the professional risks he took ultimately contributed crucially to the success of the Apollo Program and our victory in the Space Race.

He received numerous awards for his work, including NASA’s Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement.  He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and was the first recipient of Joliet Junior College’s Distinguished Alumni Award. 

Additionally, The Joliet Area Historical Museum is home to a permanent exhibit dedicated to Dr. Houbolt and his family, titled “The Soaring Achievements of John C. Houbolt.” 

They have now declared July 20th, 2014, the 45th Anniversary of the Moon Landing, as the “Houbolt Family Day” at the museum.

The museum will be free to the public each July 20th to encourage families to learn about Joliet’s local contribution to one of humankind’s greatest scientific achievements.

Dr. Houbolt retired after a distinguished career in 1985. He and his extended family remain noted philanthropists and supporters of the community of Joliet, touching countless individuals and institutions with their generosity. 

Dr. Houbolt passed away on April 15, 2014, at the age of 95. His life is an example of the impact that a determined, intelligent, and passionate individual can have. 

I rise today to remember Dr. Houbolt for his outstanding contributions to American science and engineering.  

In a society where we seem to celebrate mainly the accomplishments of our heroes of sports and entertainment, as well as those who ride our rockets off into space, it is important also to celebrate the heroes of science and engineering who make the modern world possible.

Thank you, and I yield back.