JJC Mourns the Passing of NASA Engineer, Alum John Houbolt

NASA engineer and Joliet Junior College 1938 graduate John C. Houbolt died at the age of 95 on Tuesday, April 15 due to complications from Parkinson’s disease in Scarborough, Maine.

John Houbolt's 1938 JJC yearbook picture. (Photo supplied by The J.C.)

See photos of John Houbolt

Houbolt, who is most famous for his success with NASA’s 1969 moon landing mission, was born on April 10, 1919 in Altoona, Iowa. His family eventually moved to Joliet, where Houbolt attended Joliet Central High School and Joliet Junior College in 1930s.

According to JJC’s 1938 yearbook, The J.C., as a student, Houbolt studied civil engineering and participated in the College Club. After graduating in 1938, he attended the University of Illinois in Champaign, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering. He later returned to school to receive his doctorate from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Zurich in 1957.

NASA.gov credits Houbolt as one of the great unsung heroes of the company’s Apollo program. Houbolt began working for NASA (then NACA) at one of the company’s first field centers, the Langley Research Center in Hampton Va., in 1942. In November 1961, Houbolt boldly wrote a 9-page letter to NASA Associate Administrator Dr. Robert Seamans about the company’s plans to land a man on the moon. Houbolt’s letter advocated using the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) method to travel to the moon. One of Houbolt’s most famous quotes in this letter was: “Do we want to go to the moon or not?”

JJC grad and NASA engineer John Houbolt explains the LOR method in 1962. Photo Credit: NASA.

Thanks to Houbolt and his strong support of LOR, the 1969 moon landing not only proved to be successful – but it was economical and saved time. According to “Joliet Junior College: A Pictorial History of America’s Oldest Public Community College,” by Robert Sterling, Houbolt estimated that his plan saved the United States $20 billion and accelerated the moon landing by about three years.

Two months after the 1969 moon landing, Sterling’s book said the city of Joliet invited Houbolt back to the area for “John Houbolt Day,” on Sept. 18, 1969. Houbolt and his family attended, and were paraded down the streets of Joliet. They also attended a luncheon that included 600 people. At the luncheon, JJC representatives and Joliet mayor Maurice Berlinsky spoke of their plans to rename Airport Road in Houbolt’s honor.

Just a few years after Houbolt Road was named, Houbolt came back to JJC as the principal speaker for the new JJC campus dedication ceremony on Oct. 22, 1972.

JJC honored Houbolt again in 1986 with an Alumni Achievement Award.

In addition to Houbolt Road, the city of Joliet has also honored Houbolt with a mural, located near the Joliet Union station. The painting illustrates Houbolt’s work for NASA and the LOR method.

In lieu of flowers, the Houbolt family invites the community to donate to the JJC Foundation in John C. Houbolt’s name. For more information about donating to the JJC Foundation, contact Kristi Mulvey at kmulvey@jjc.edu or 815-280-2353.

About NewsRoom