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To the Moon and Back—by the End of the Decade

Wednesday, May 08, 2019
Ceremony recognizing Abe Silverstein's posthumous induction into the National Aviation Hall of Fame

Abe Silverstein, a 1929 alumnus, has been inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame for his contributions to rocket development and leadership of NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs.

As a pioneer of American air and space exploration, Abe Silverstein was a creative engineer whose contributions played a leading role in developing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), set the agency’s course for exploring the moon, and oversaw the development of aviation technology for future space missions.

The administration of President John F. Kennedy sought Silverstein’s advice early in 1961 in regard to the direction of America’s space program. The Rose-Hulman alumnus told NASA administrator James Webb that “we could go to the moon.” When asked how long that task might 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.”
Achieving that goal was made possible by Silverstein’s advocacy of the liquid hydrogen engine. That development would become the basis of the revolutionary Centaur rocket that propelled America in the space race. Silverstein would spearhead NASA’s Mercury and Apollo projects, both named by the 1929 mechanical engineering graduate, along with the Gemini program. Thomas Wolfe’s book “The Right Stuff,” about the early days of America’s space adventures, documents the role Silverstein had in selecting the original seven astronauts for the Mercury missions.

Silverstein also was asked to manage the Apollo program, but decided to return to working with engineers and scientists on innovative projects for the launch vehicle program. He had developed a distain for the political and public power struggles associated with America’s fledgling space program. He would spend the rest of his 40-year career as director of the Lewis Research Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio (now NASA’s Glenn Research Center).

Neil Armstrong was one of several young engineers, scientists and aviators Silverstein mentored. The administrator noted Armstrong’s love of flying and encouraged him to become a test pilot in hopes of joining NASA’s astronaut program.

Silverstein retired in 1969, shortly after Armstrong’s historic moon walk, and died in 2001 as America’s space program had moved on to focus on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station.

After Silverstein’s death, former NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin said, “[Silverstein] was a man of vision and conviction…His innovative, pioneering spirit lives on in the work we do today.”

Gene Kranz, former director of NASA mission operations for the Apollo and Space Shuttle program (featured in the “Apollo 13” film), says, “Abe was a visionary leader who was the right man, in the right place, at the right time.”

Silverstein’s contributions to the space program have been recognized with his induction in the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and his receipt of the prestigious Guggenheim Medal for his significant contributions to the advancement of flight. His name adorns the Glenn Space Center’s administration building and a supersonic wind tunnel, which continues to make significant breakthroughs in aviation research.

NASA Administration

Webb’s visionary oversight of the space agency for most of the 1960s, as Silverstein was spearheading NASA’s Mercury and Apollo projects, earned him an honorary degree from Rose-Hulman in 1965. Webb led NASA from early 1961 until the end of 1968, though his years there were not all marked by success. Most notably, Webb had to deal with the aftermath of the tragic Apollo 1 launch pad fire that killed three astronauts. NASA’s own account of the incident describes the shock that gripped the nation and Webb’s comments to the media: "We've always known that something like this was going to happen soon or later…who would have thought that the first tragedy would be on the ground?"

According to NASA’s accounting, Webb went to President Lyndon Johnson and asked that NASA be allowed to handle the accident investigation and direct the recovery from the accident. He promised to be truthful in assessing blame and pledged to assign it to himself and NASA management as appropriate. The agency set out to discover the details of the tragedy, to correct problems, and to get back on schedule.

“Mr. Webb reported these findings to various Congressional committees and took a personal grilling at nearly every meeting,” the NASA account noted. “While the ordeal was personally taxing, whether by happenstance or design, Webb deflected much of the backlash over the fire from both NASA as an agency and from the Johnson administration. While he was personally tarred with the disaster, the space agency's image and popular support was largely undamaged. He left NASA in October 1968, just as Apollo was nearing a successful completion.”

Webb’s legacy to space exploration was his insistence that NASA not have a singular goal (to land a person on the moon), but instead have a long-term commitment to understanding the universe through scientific study and exploration. He developed a program for university involvement that provided graduate fellowships and grants for scientific research and laboratories. According to NASA, “Webb's vision of a balanced program resulted in a decade of space science research that remains unparalleled today. During his tenure, NASA invested in the development of robotic spacecraft, which explored the lunar environment so that astronauts could do so later, and it sent scientific probes to Mars and Venus, giving Americans their first-ever view of the strange landscape of outer space. As early as 1965, Webb also had written that a major space telescope, then known as the Large Space Telescope, should become a major NASA effort.”

Since then, the Hubble telescope has been launched and then decommissioned after years of providing valuable deep-sky data. Through an international collaboration, its next-generation replacement, appropriately named the James Webb Space Telescope, will be launched into orbit in 2021.

Rocket Man

Behind every space mission lie innumerable scientific and technological advancements that make each one possible. Many achievements in rocketry can be traced to 1932 electrical engineering alumnus Byron MacNabb, an engineer at General Dynamics Corp. who was involved in development of more than 200 rockets, spacecraft and satellites. In the late 1950s, “Mr. Mac” oversaw development of America’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Atlas, which became a booster rocket for manned and unmanned space flights in the 1960s. Before there could be men on the moon, he directed programs that sent the first unmanned space vehicle to the moon and initiated explorations of Mars and Venus. As operations manager for General Dynamics, MacNabb led the team of engineers responsible for boosting the Mercury manned space capsules into Earth orbit. And, he directed launch operations for space flights involving astronauts John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra and Gordon Cooper.

Clear Vision

A critical element in space exploration is gathering data from telescopes to better understand the universe. Two Rose mechanical engineering alumni, Don Fordyce (1956) and Richard Wegrich (1958), helped create components for the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched in 1990, it opened up for scientists their first unobstructed view of the universe due to its location outside of Earth’s atmosphere. Fordyce was brought in to manage the Hubble program after having a successful career as vice president of Fairchild’s space systems division. Wegrich directed development of the temperature-control system for the stellar eye piece, making possible new discoveries, data collection and photography from the telescope.