Professional Courage: John Houbolt


By definition Black Belts and other performance improvement experts, whether internal or external to an organization, need to develop, communicate, advocate, and help implement major change. Also by definition, if this change it at all material, it will more often than not run counter to the currently accepted practices, policies, dogma, or paradigms of the existing order. Thus, an effective performance improvement professional must have the strength of character to stand for new thinking and ideas that might invite ridicule or rejection; the “push-back” might even amount to a real or perceived “career-limiting move.”

There are several examples of professional courage that I often use in courses. One of them is the case of NASA engineer, John Houbolt, who passed away on April 15, 2014 at the age of 95.

From the NASA website’s obituary on John Houbolt:

“In the space race of the 1950s and ’60s, the leading voices were rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and … another guy. Household names included Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard and … oh, you know, the fellow who pushed the idea of a separate crew capsule and lunar lander. America wouldn’t have won the race, the Eagle wouldn’t have landed in 1969 and the Apollo 13 crew would never have survived if it weren’t for an engineer from [the] NASA Langley Research Center. John C. Houbolt.”

So reads a feature on written in 2009 about one of the unsung heroes of the Apollo Program. Houbolt may have never become a household name, but his ideas and contributions to Apollo made it possible to achieve the goal of landing a crew on the Moon and safely returning them by the end of the decade. As a member of Lunar Mission Steering Group, Houbolt had been studying various technical aspects of space rendezvous since 1959 and was convinced, like several others at Langley, that lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR) was not only the most feasible way to make it to the moon before the decade was out, it was the only way. At the time many scientists thought the only way to achieve a lunar landing was to either build a giant rocket twice the size of the Saturn V (the concept was called Nova) or to launch multiple Saturn Vs to assemble the lunar ship in Earth orbit (an approach known as Earth orbit rendezvous).

In November 1961, Houbolt took the bold step of skipping proper channels and writing a 9-page private letter directly to incoming Associate Administrator Dr. Robert C. Seamans. Describing himself somewhat melodramatically “as a voice in the wilderness,” Houbolt protested LOR’s exclusion from the NASA debate on the Apollo mission profile. “Do we want to go to the moon or not?” the Langley engineer asked. “Why is Nova, with its ponderous size simply just accepted, and why is a much less grandiose scheme involving rendezvous ostracized or put on the defensive? I fully realize that contacting you in this manner is somewhat unorthodox,” Houbolt admitted, “but the issues at stake are crucial enough to us all that an unusual course is warranted.” Houbolt clearly saw that the giant Nova rocket and the expensive and complex Earth orbit rendezvous plan were clearly not a realistic option–especially if the mission was to be accomplished anywhere close to President Kennedy’s timetable. While conducting a rendezvous in orbit around the Moon was going to be a challenge, the weight, cost and savings of using LOR were obvious once one realized that LOR was not fundamentally much more difficult than Earth orbit rendezvous. This insights, and Houbolt’s brave and energetic advocacy of it, made all the difference.

Lunar orbit rendezvous seems all very dry and technical, but if one thinks about the politics of any organization, much less a large and complex one such as NASA, anyone with a passing familiarity with the difficulties of “selling” a radical new idea knows how difficult it is. In a Monograph published by NASA on the story of LOR, James R. Hansen writes:


Knowing what we know now—that Americans would land on the Moon and return safely before the end of the 1960s, using the LOR method—it might be hard to imagine and appreciate the strength of feeling against the LOR concept in the early 1960s. In retrospect, we know that LOR enjoyed—as Brown, Michael, Dolan, and especially John Houbolt had said—several advantages over competitor methods. It required less fuel, only half the payload, and less brand-new technology; it did not need a monstrous rocket, such as the proposed Nova for a direct flight; and it called for only one launch from the Earth, whereas one of LOR’s chief competitors, “Earth-orbit rendezvous,” required two. Only the small, lightweight LEM, not the entire spacecraft, would have to land on the Moon; this perhaps was LOR’s major advantage. Because the lander would be discarded after use and would not return to Earth, NASA could customize the LEM’s design for maneuvering flight in the lunar environment and for landing softly on the Moon. In fact, NASA could tailor all the modules of the Apollo spacecraft independently—and without those tailorings compromising each other. One spacecraft unit performing three jobs would have forced some major compromises. But three units performing three jobs, without compromise, was another LOR advantage that no one at NASA could overlook.

It was the initial resistance to the LOR concept that is most instructive to Black Belts and others whose jobs requires the advocacy of “out-of-the-box” ideas and unorthodox approaches. Hansen’s paper recalls:

Houbolt recalls that neither the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board nor the STG seemed overly interested. Nor did they seem overly hostile, however. It was this apparently passive reaction to his advocacy of LOR, which he was to experience more than a few times in the coming months, that so frustrated Houbolt and eventually helped push him to bold action. Not all of the reaction was so passive. Some of it, from intelligent and influential people inside the space program, was strong, harshly worded, and negative.

On 14 December 1960, Houbolt traveled to Washington with a group of Langley colleagues to present the staff at NASA headquarters the briefing he had promised Bob Seamans three months earlier. All of the important people were in the audience, from Administrator T. Keith Glennan, Seamans, and Wernher von Braun on down through the leadership of the STG. For fifteen minutes, Houbolt moved carefully through his charts and analysis. He concluded, as he had done in the earlier briefings, with an enthusiastic statement about the weight savings—a reduction of Earth payload by a factor of a “whopping” 2 to 2.5.

When he finished, a small man with a receding hairline and a bow tie jumped up from the audience. Houbolt knew all too well who he was: the intuitively brilliant and hot-blooded Max Faget, his long-time Langley associate and present member of the STG. “His figures lie,” Faget accused, rather nastily. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Even in a “bull session” back at Langley, Faget’s fiery accusation would have been upsetting. But “in an open meeting, in front of Houbolt’s peers and supervisors,” it was “a brutal thing for one Langley engineer to say to another.”37 And Faget had not bothered to say this to him four days earlier during the more private STG management briefing at Langley, when Houbolt and the others, who also were to give talks at headquarters (Clint Brown, John Bird, and Max Kurbjun), had previewed their same, exact presentations. This time, he carried his vocal objections out into the hallway, even after the meeting was over.

Houbolt was certainly not a person without his own blind spots; for example he was a change-agent whose primary approach was technical, rather than augmenting purely fact-based reasoning with the arts of political persuasion. Writes Hansen:

Houbolt was a brilliant engineering analyst—and an energetic, persistent, and often eloquent advocate of the causes he espoused—but he was not an overly shrewd behind-the-scenes player of institutional politics. Faced with the impasse of early 1961, his first instinct was simply to find more sound and logical retorts to the criticisms he had been hearing.

An inability to mix the technical with the behavioral is a common development area for many Black Belt-types. But that aside, Houbolt’s actions demonstrates a critical attribute of any process excellence professional — the courage to take a stand.




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