The man responsible for launching America's space program
As he tracked Charles Lindbergh's historic 1927 solo flight from New York to Paris, young Robert Gilruth of Nashwauk, Minnesota, became fascinated by flight. Four years later, he enrolled in the University of Minnesota, where he completed both a bachelor of science and a master of science degree in aeronautical engineering. A year later, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics--the predecessor of NASA--and his career really took off.
Gilruth's earliest assignments involved rocket research. After World War II, he led a team of engineers in the development of rocket-powered aircraft. All the while, though, America was racing the Soviet Union into space. In 1957, Gilruth's professional focus shifted from rockets to spaceships. "I can recall watching the sunlight reflect off of Sputnik as it passed over my home on the Chesapeake Bay," Gilruth said in 1972. "It put a new sense of value and urgency on things we had been doing."
In 1958, Gilruth was transferred to the newly formed NASA, where he was assigned the task of putting men in space. He and his team worked around the clock on a top-secret assignment later known as Project Mercury, the first U.S. human space flight program. Gilruth was personally responsible for designing the Mercury capsule and its propulsion systems; he also established the requirements for astronaut qualifications and mission control procedures and training.
Gilruth's team and responsibilities expanded as the U.S. space program gained credibility and funding. As director of the Manned Spacecraft Center (later the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center) in Houston, Texas, Gilruth conceived and developed the Gemini Program and was also responsible for the spacecraft design and the selection and training of the astronauts and ground crews for the Apollo missions. He directed twenty-five manned space flights, including Alan Shepard's first Mercury flight, the first lunar landing by Apollo 11, and the dramatic rescue of Apollo 13.
"There is no question that without Bob Gilruth there would not have been a Mercury, Gemini, or an Apollo program," said Gilruth's NASA colleague George Low. "It is clear to all who have been associated with him that he has been the leader of all that is manned space flight in this country."
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