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Melvill atop SS1
Gen. Samuel Phillips, Dr. Wernher von Braun, Dr. James Fletcher and Dr. George M. Low watch the launch of Apollo 15. (credit: NASA)

The legacy of great men

The future of America’s human space flight rests solidly on the foundation of accomplishments by men history records as truly great. Knowing their towering contributions to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, I sometimes wonder if America would have landed astronauts on the Moon if even half a dozen had chosen to pursue other careers. Their impact was that profound. Some might argue other men would have been found to fill the void, and that may be true. However, the 1960s in America saw an amazing convergence of distinguished and accomplished men who applied their knowledge to the problems of space flight going to and from the Moon.

There were hundreds of brilliant and dynamic men within NASA and the aerospace industry during the Sixties who all had a decisive impact on the goals, plans, schedules and actual hardware that made Apollo a success. It is fascinating to read about these men, their decision-making ability and how they came to those decisions that ultimately determined American history in the latter half of the 20th century. A countless number of such decisions—right decisions—came together during that time like some massive Rubik’s cube that culminated on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the Moon.

“What if…”

Perhaps the biggest “what if” question one could pose is, “What if Operation Paperclip had not snagged Wernher von Braun and his fellow rocket scientists and brought them to the United States?” This brain trust formed the core of America’s ballistic missile and launch vehicle knowledge after World War 2. What some overlook is that a large number of other German engineers working at Peenemunde were captured by the Russians at roughly the same time. I leave to alternate historians what might have happened to the free world if all of the scientists and engineers at Peenemunde were shipped to the communist motherland.

A countless number of decisions—right decisions—came together during that time like some massive Rubik’s cube that culminated on July 20, 1969.

Of course, Dr. Wernher von Braun was only the most visible member of a very talented team of engineers the US was very fortunate to have landed. From his first days at Fort Bliss, Texas to his position as director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, von Braun not only directed development of America’s most notable missiles and rockets, he wrote many books and articles about space exploration and the benefits derived from it. For millions of Americans, he became a household name as the face of American rocketry and ultimately an American icon of the 20th century. Von Braun was fortunate not only to have lived to see the fulfillment of his dreams of space exploration but to be instrumental in bringing them to pass.

Along with von Braun came many knowledgeable engineers that contributed to the Apollo program. One of them was Dr. Kurt Debus. He worked alongside von Braun at Fort Bliss and from 1952 to 1962 was chief of the missile firing laboratory at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Cape Canaveral, Florida. When the ABMA was absorbed by NASA, Debus became director of the Launch Operations Center and then for the entire Kennedy Space Center in 1963. His greatest responsibilities involved the successful launches of the Saturn 1 and Saturn 5. He retired after the successful launches of Skylab and its three manned missions.

Eberhard Rees had been technical plant manager of the German Guided Missile Center at Peenemunde, and in 1945 relocated to the US as part of Operation Paperclip. He was part of von Braun’s team that modified the Jupiter-C rocket that launched Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958. When NASA created the Marshall Space Flight Center with von Braun as director, Rees became deputy director for Technical and Scientific Matters. He was part of the inner circle that worked to develop both the Saturn 1and Saturn 5. Rees became director of MSFC when von Braun transferred to NASA Headquarters in 1970.

Arthur Rudolph was production engineer for the V-2. He came to the US with von Braun and was involved with America’s missile program first at Ft. Bliss, and then Redstone Arsenal. When the Apollo lunar program was launched, von Braun entrusted Rudolph with production of the Saturn 5, provided required input for configuration of the Vehicle Assembly Building in order to assemble the Saturn 5 stack, and contributed to design of the Launch Umbilical Tower used to service the big rocket. After more than a quarter of a century of illustrious service to America and its space program, Rudolph retired. However, he became the subject of an investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations in the 1980s over allegations about treatment of prisoner-workers at a V-2 factory during World War 2. He was forced to give up his US citizenship and returned to Germany with his wife. The German government did its own investigation and could find no substantiation of the charges. When Rudolph applied for a visa to attend the 20th anniversary to the Apollo 11 moon landing, it was denied. Many of Rudolph’s fellow engineers were appalled of his treatment at the hands of the US government, but his contribution to the Saturn 5 program remains untarnished. There were many more German scientists and engineers who contributed mightily to the success of Apollo that simply cannot be listed here.


The NACA was the precursor to NASA, and many NACA veterans were tapped to launch the new space agency. Among the first was Dr. Robert R. Gilruth, who had worked at Langley Aeronautical Laboratory since 1937. With the establishment of the Space Task Group of which he was a principal member, Gilruth worked to build the Mercury program literally from the ground up. With the success of project Mercury, Gilruth was placed as director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston from 1962 to 1972. His leadership and key decisions helped to ensure the success of Gemini and Apollo as well. Although his responsibilities were broad, he was always involved in solving critical mission problems, whether it was a recalcitrant docking probe or having to cobble a makeshift CO2 filter needed during Apollo 13. He had the greatest respect of all those who worked with him.

The NACA was the precursor to NASA, and many NACA veterans were tapped to launch the new space agency.

Christopher C. Kraft had worked with Gilruth at Langley since 1945, so Gilruth brought him on board as a member of the Space Task Group and shortly thereafter as Project Mercury’s Flight Director. Dr. Kraft worked to develop the countdown, launch, and flight procedures, as well as the design of Mission Control itself at the Cape and later in Houston. He was flight director for many of the Gemini flights. Kraft’s overriding concern as flight director had always been the safety of the crew. In 1970 he became deputy director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston and director of MSC two years later when Gilruth retired. Over the next decade, he guided the MSC through the Skylab program, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and the dawn of the Space Shuttle era. His autobiography, Flight: My Life in Mission Control is among the best first-person accounts to relate America’s space program.

George M. Low, also a NACA alumnus, was part of the planning team that organized NASA in 1958 and became Chief of Manned Space Flight in Washington. He was involved in all aspects of projects Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. Low transferred to Houston and the Manned Spacecraft Center (later called the Johnson Space Center) and served as Deputy Center Director. He became manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office to direct redesign of the Apollo capsule after the fire in 1967. It was Low who proposed sending the first manned Saturn 5 mission to the Moon known as Apollo 8—one of the most calculated and bold decisions of the entire Apollo program that was critical in the US ability to land on the Moon by 1969. He was appointed NASA Deputy Administrator in December 1969 and was involved in the manned aspects of Skylab, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, and the Space Shuttle.

Dr. George Mueller was Associate Administrator for the Office of Manned Space Flight at NASA Headquarters from 1963 to 1969. He was the architect of “all-up systems testing,” particularly with regard to the Saturn 5, saving many months and countless dollars in development and testing. In August of 1966, Mueller sketched the configuration of Skylab that was adopted for America’s first space station. His influence on the design of the Space Shuttle was considerable. Mueller’s impact on America’s space program is still felt to this day.

Gen. Samuel C. Phillips was asked by NASA in 1964 to be director of the Apollo program within the agency’s Office of Manned Spaceflight. From 1959 to 1963 Phillips had been Director of the Air Force’s Minuteman program, bringing the ICBM to operational status. He was also involved in overseeing the development of reliable integrated circuit technology that served as the foundation of many electronic systems in the following years. He is credited with ensuring the complex Apollo program remained on schedule, even after the tragic Apollo 1 fire. Launch vehicle and spacecraft reliability and safety were at the top of Gen. Phillips priorities for Apollo. With the successful landing of Apollo 11 at Tranquility Base on July 20, 1969, Gen. Phillips felt his job was done; he returned to the Air Force to head up the Space and Missile Systems Organization. He was always asked to attend each subsequent Apollo launch, and often did.

This is only a handful of some of the most notable men who helped to get American astronauts to the Moon. No doubt there are new leaders in NASA and industry today who are helping to plan and engineer this country’s return to the Moon and to destinations beyond. The greatness of their words and deeds will determine their place in history.