John C. Houbolt

John C. Houbolt
John C. Houbolt

World-renowned aeronautical scientist who championed the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) and the Lunar Module (LEM) concepts used in NASA’s manned moon landing program

It was one of the most monumental achievements of the 20th century: America’s successful pursuit to land a man on the moon and return him safely home again to Earth. Historians commonly believe if it were not for John Houbolt’s contributions to the Apollo missions of the late 1960s, it was unlikely NASA would have been able to accomplish President Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In fact, Time Magazine called Houbolt “Apollo’s Unsung Hero.”

Houbolt was responsible for adopting and pushing the Lunar Orbital Rendezvous concept to NASA. The LOR concept consisted of building a small lunar landing craft and leaving the Earth-landing capsule in orbit above the moon. Houbolt’s idea was not the prevailing opinion, but he convinced both the White House administrators, NASA officials, and lead NASA scientist Wernher von Braun to adopt his mathematical analysis of weights and reliabilities for the LOR, It was eventually chosen for the Apollo missions in 1962. Upon the lunar module landing on the moon during Apollo 11, Von Braun himself uttered the phrase, “John, it worked beautifully,” from Mission Control in Houston to publicly recognize Houbolt’s contribution to the endeavor.

Houbolt’s contributions to the manned moon missions have been recognized by the City of Joliet, the State of Illinois, and by the University of Illinois, who awarded Houbolt with an honorary doctorate degree in 2005. He earned the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 1963 and was prominently featured in HBO’s series “From the Earth to the Moon.”

A native of Joliet, Houbolt spent his early career as both a junior engineer for the city of Waukegan, Illinois, and as a bridge engineer for Illinois Central Railroad. His early days with the space program began in 1942 with the National Advisory Committee of Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA. He served as the Associate Chief of the Dynamic Loads Division (1949-61) and the Associate Chief of the Dynamic Loads Division (1961-63) at Langley Research Center-NASA, where he helped pursue research problems in aeroelasticity in application to aircraft and space science.

Houbolt continued to serve as a contributor to the field following the Apollo Mission, serving as Senior Vice President and a senior consultant for Aeronautical Research Associates of Princeton, Inc. from 1963-75 and as Chief Aeronautical Scientist for Langley from 1976 until his retirement in 1985.

Houbolt was named an Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and was the first recipient of the AIAA’s Structures, Structural Dynamics and Materials Award (1968). He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in 1990 and earned the University of Illinois Alumni Award for Distinguished Service in 1997.


  • 1940 BS Civil Engineering ILLINOIS
  • 1942 MS Civil Engineering ILLINOIS
  • 2005 Honorary Degree, ILLINOIS
  • PhD Technical Sciences from ETH (Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule, Zurich, Switzerland)