This is a very good book, but also a difficult book to evaluate, because it is not really a book about the legendary aerospace engineer John Houbolt. Instead, as the author states in his introduction, the book is actually about how NASA chose the method by which humans would land on the moon. There were two strong possibilities: a direct approach with one rocket, or docking multiple rockets in Earth orbit before heading outward. A third approach, of docking and undocking around the moon, seemed too terrifyingly risky for NASA to seriously contemplate at the time. Eventually, however, this third way became recognized as the only method that could get Americans on the moon by the end of the decade. This book offers an insightful look at the internal wranglings and jostling for power between different personalities and NASA centers in the early days of the space program as this decision was worked out. The benefits and drawbacks of each method are never really evaluated side by side, so I feel the reader never learns quite enough about why each was championed. However, this is outweighed by the personal insights this book relates. Contrary to the usual vastly simplified story of how Houbolt advocated for lunar rendezvous as a lone outsider, this book shows a much more complex story. Key characters come to life in new ways. Houbolt, it turns out, had presented his idea multiple times to NASA management, and had been quietly championed for a long time by NASA Associate Administrator Bob Seamans. We learn how Wernher von Braun was loved by many outside of NASA, but only tolerated within. Most decisions described in the book involving von Braun seem to have been to satisfy his ego more than NASA’s needs. Similarly, White House science advisor Jerome Wiesner is shown as consistently and persistently on the wrong side of every decision made. When so many space history books of this era focus on the astronauts and missions, it is refreshing to read about the complex love-hate relationships of the managers who made it all happen. These decisions are discussed in other books, but the complexity is related here in refreshing personal depth. Despite carrying his name as the title, Houbolt remains a relatively minor figure in this book. For example, after the decision of how to go to the moon is made, his life from 1963-1969 is covered in one paragraph, and then we never hear of him again – there is nothing about the remaining 45 years of his life. Projects he was working on outside of his lunar work are often given as lists. A book about a quiet, career-focused engineer, minor as an individual in comparison to the enormous decision he was part of, might not been a gripping read. I think it was absolutely the right decision to focus instead on the vital few years he was in the midst of a drama that changed world history. I only wish the book had been titled differently, instead of marketed as a biography, to save me a lot of confusion as I read early chapters and wondered why John Houbolt kept disappearing for long stretches of the story. Still, well worth a read for those who wonder how NASA pulled off the impossible.
While this book may have John Houbolt’s name as its title, the author, William F. Causey skillfully and coherently weaves together many participants and their roles in selecting the method for the lunar landing in 1969. It isn’t until Chapter Five that Houbolt (a Ph.D. engineer who worked for NACA since 1944) enters the picture as a member of a NASA working group. The prologue fittingly describes Apollo 11 astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin’s launch from the Moon’s surface into lunar orbit to rendezvous with the Command Module—the only unrehearsed aspect of the mission. Although many authors have portrayed this event, Causey was able to select several seldom described aspects that set the tone and expectations of this book. Read full review here: https://space.nss.org/book-review-john-houbolt-the-unsung-hero-of-the-apollo-moon-landings/
John Houbolt includes a biography of its main character, although most of the book concentrates on the LOR decision. Because that decision took place at a number of levels and involved many people from little-known engineers who populated the inevitable technical committees all the way up to President Kennedy himself, there are large parts of the book where Houbolt is necessarily absent. Indeed, one of the strengths of this book is its account of how the people at the top level of NASA such as Administrator James Webb, Seamans, George Low, Brainerd Holmes, and Joseph Shea led the agency to its decision and how they interacted with people inside NASA like Houbolt and those outside NASA such as the president’s science advisor, Jerome Wiesener. Click Here to Read Full Review
A detailed examination of the discussions at NASA in its first years about just how it was going to get astronauts to the surface of the Moon and back, and how one man, Houbolt, played a key, if often unheralded, role in that effort. Read full review here: https://www.thespacereview.com/article/3922/1#idc-container
Causey’s work demonstrates that the history of LOR is richer than just Houbolt’s contributions and the entire work is as much a history of NASA’s early years and its decision-making process as it is about Houbolt himself. This is a book about how we got to the moon, or rather, about how NASA decided how we would get to the moon. Causey’s work covers the period from roughly 1957 to 1963 and represents a comprehensive and readable history of NASA’s early years, but one that still brings a fresh and nuanced perspective to a familiar story. Read full review here: https://balloonstodrones.com/2020/06/12/bookreview-john-houbolt-the-unsung-hero-of-the-apollo-moon-landings/
The choice of how to get to the moon was critical to meeting President Kennedy’s goal of a lunar landing ‘before this decade is out.’ Bill Causey’s deeply researched and clearly written book depicts how the persistence of one man, NASA engineer John Houbolt, decisively influenced the tortuous and contentious process of making that choice. The book nicely fills a glaring gap in the history of America’s journey to the moon, and reminds us that the lunar journey was far from straightforward.
John C. Houbolt was another of the ‘hidden figures’ of NASA during the Apollo era. Bucking institutional blinders, Houbolt convinced the leaders of the space agency that lunar orbit rendezvous was the best way to conduct the Apollo program. William Causey’s biography of Houbolt tells the fascinating story of how this lone engineer battled bureaucracy to help America achieve President Kennedy’s vision, ‘before this decade is out,’ of ‘landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.
“Causey’s book joins the list of essential reading for people seeking to understand the forces that made possible the Apollo space program. Causey expertly recalls the venture from the perspective of the people who organized the expeditions, and the sole engineer who convinced the country’s finest spaceflight minds that getting to the moon and back by 1970 required lunar orbit rendezvous. In the process, Causey paints a vivid picture of the inner workings of American government and the making of technical decisions in the mid-twentieth century.”