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CEE alumnus critical to moon landing

8/1/2019 3:41:45 PM

Above: John Houbolt at NASA. Photo: NASA


By Celeste Bock

John Houbolt
John Houbolt
The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 2019, turned a spotlight on Illinois CEE alumnus John C. Houbolt (1919-2014), considered one of the unsung heroes of the Apollo 11 mission.  

Houbolt was an aeronautical engineer when President Kennedy challenged NASA to land a man on the moon before 1970. The main idea under consideration at the time was a direct rocket flight, but Houbolt developed and fought vehemently for the lunar orbit rendezvous idea, which featured a spacecraft that would orbit the moon while a smaller shuttle carried the astronauts to the moon’s surface and back. Houbolt had to fight for his idea, ultimately skirting the chain of command to send a letter to an incoming director asking, “Do we want to go to the moon or not?”

Houbolt earned his bachelor’s degree in 1940 and his master’s degree in 1942. Nathan Newmark supervised his thesis. He earned a Doctor of Technical Sciences degree from the Swiss Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1957. He was named a Distinguished Alumnus of the CEE department in 1969 and of The Grainger College of Engineering in 1997. He was named to the Illinois Engineering Hall of Fame in 2014.

Houbolt sketch of the basic flight plan using lunar rendezvous

To learn more about Houbolt, explore the following links:

Audiobook on Audible: “The Man Who Knew the Way to the Moon” by Todd Zwillich

“Meet John Houbolt: He Figured Out How To Go To The Moon, But Few Were Listening” (NPR):

“How an Engineer from Illinois Risked his Career to Make Apollo 11 a Success” (WILL):

“Joliet museum honors John Houbolt, local kid who helped NASA solve a critical moon landing problem” (Chicago Tribune):

Obituary about Houbolt (NASA):