Alumnus Abe Silverstein, the Engineer Who Put a Man on the Moon, Being Inducted Posthumously into National Aviation Hall of Fame

Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Abe Silverstein with model of Apollo space capsule.

Space Pioneer: Abe Silverstein, the first director of NASA's space flight programs, advocated the use of cryogenic liquid hydrogen fuel to launch and propel America's dream of putting a man on the moon.

The excitement and wonder of space exploration has captivated the American people since the historic launch of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, which resulted in astronaut Neil Armstrong taking-"one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

However, before Armstrong could take those historic first steps, one man crafted America's Apollo space program into its strong legacy.

Abe Silverstein, a 1929 mechanical engineering alumnus and Terre Haute, Indiana, native, will be inducted posthumously into the National Aviation Hall of Fame on October 2 in Dayton, Ohio, in an event often referred to as "America's Oscar Night of Aviation." Other Class of 2015 inductees are retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert L. Cardenas, former NASA space flight director Eugene Kranz, and the late Robert Hartzell, a pioneer in propeller design. Famed Apollo 13 commander James Lovell will also be recognized with the first Neil Armstrong Outstanding Achievement Award.

"Collectively, they span the history of manned flight and individually each one stands as an icon in their own community of aviation," says Ron Kaplan, National Aviation Hall of Fame enshrinement director.

Silverstein set a foundation for America's manned space missions as NASA's first director of space flight programs from 1958 to 1969. He is credited with starting the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs, and gained public and government support for space exploration.

In early 1961, the administration of first-year President John F. Kennedy sought Silverstein's technical insight on how space exploration could capture the imagination of the American public. In response, he told NASA administrator James Webb that "we could go to the moon." When asked how long that would take, Silverstein replied, "We could do that by the end of the decade." Silverstein's prediction found its way to the White House and four days later, on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy appeared before a joint session of Congress to declare: "I believe we should go to the moon."

Silverstein was passionate to fulfill President Kennedy's dream, with the help of other talented engineers and scientists. He helped lead the most critical developments of America's manned space program, including advocating the use of cryogenic liquid hydrogen fuel to launch and propel space rockets to the moon. NASA took a chance with his ideas, and the results were far more rewarding than most people could have imagined.

Silverstein retired from NASA's Lewis Research Center in Cleveland in 1969, shortly after Neil Armstrong's historic walk on the moon, served as a member of Rose-Hulman's board of trustees, and died in 2001 at age 92.

At the time of Silverstein's death, former NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin stated, "[Silverstein] was a man of vision and conviction…His innovative, pioneering spirit lives on in the work we do today."

Abe Silverstein Alumnifeatureimage

Father of Apollo Space Program: Alumnus Abe Silverstein is credited with starting NASA's Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs, and gained public and government support for space exploration.

Other significant aviation and scientific contributions attributed to Silverstein include:

  • Designed or improved many World War II airplanes, including the B-29 and British Spitfire.
  • Oversaw development of fuel cell technology.
  • Hired many of NASA's top scientists and engineers who led the expansion of America's space program for the next half-century.
  • Developed the jet afterburner.
  • Built the world's largest wind tunnel at Lewis Research Center, now known as NASA's Glenn Research Center, in Cleveland.
  • Supervised the construction of NASA's Robert Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
  • Built the first supersonic wind tunnel (named the Abe Silverstein Supersonic Wind Tunnel).

In 1984, NASA named Silverstein the "Elder Statesman of Aviation," and, in 1997, he was presented the acclaimed Guggenheim Medal for advancing America's manned space program.

"Abe Silverstein was an early space pioneer whose intelligence, hard work, and leadership laid the foundation for scientific discoveries that continue to enrich our nation - and the world," says U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who has recommended Silverstein for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. "[Silverstein's] research helped create our nation's first generation of operational jet aircraft, and provided the vision needed to help America continue a strong legacy of innovation and advanced scientific technology research."