How America used Lunar Orbit Rendezvous to reach the moon
On October 4, 1957, Russia launches the first artificial satellite in history – Sputnik. To many Americans this is a shocking event. Few days later Werner von Braun, America’s leading rocket scientist, says in an interview: “We consider the control of space around the earth much like, shall we say, the great Maritime powers consider the control of the seas in the 16th through the 18th Century, and they say if we want to control this planet, we have to control the space around it”. Dr. Werner von Braun is a German engineer who created the V-2 rocket for Hitler in World War II, he now works for the US Army. For years, von Braun has dreamed of exploring space. And many people think that he brought America to the Moon. But this is not true. Now I’m going to tell you what I’ve learned.
In the 1950s, a tiny group of engineers was already planning trips to the moon. They were called the Space Task Group – visionaries dreaming remarkable dreams that conceived and directed the nation’s first human-in-space program. They were the people who had to analyze and decide how to go to the moon.
The most basic decision that should be made is about the flight. There are two possibilities. The first, Direct Ascent, uses a single rocket to send a spacecraft to the moon. It’s the way people have always imagined going. But sending the spacecraft all that way will take an enormous rocket, larger than the Statue of Liberty – a monster called “NOVA.” Werner von Braun suggests a different way – Earth Orbit Rendezvous (EOR). EOR uses two smaller rockets. One sends up the spacecraft. The other sends up the fuel. The astronauts rendezvous with the fuel tank, fill up their spacecraft, and head for the moon. Direct Ascent is simple, but needs a huge rocket. Earth Orbit Rendezvous uses smaller rockets, but it’s more complicated. Picking the mode will be the most critical decision in the Apollo program, because it determines everything: the spacecraft, the rocket, the training, budget, and schedule. The wrong choice means losing to the Russians, and maybe not reaching the moon at all. The answer was one nobody expected. The engineer who lobbied for it was an outsider – he didn’t belong to the Space Task Group and never worked for von Braun. Almost no one welcomed the idea, but he never gave up. The story of his struggle is largely unknown, but the plan he promoted got America to the moon. His name is Dr. John C. Houbolt.
In 1959, Houbolt says that both plans, Direct Ascent and Earth Orbit Rendezvous, will fail, because of the enormous rocket needed:
“It was a vehicle about the size of an Atlas. Down at the Cape, it takes 3000 men, a launch pad, and a launch facility to get an Atlas off the ground from the earth. They were going to land something the size of an Atlas on the moon, backwards, with no help whatsoever. I thought that was preposterous”.