Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot for Apollo 11
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot for Apollo 11REUTERS

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing.

The mission put the first two people on the Moon — Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. But it wouldn’t have been a success without one key figure: NASA engineer John C. Houbolt, who’s been merely a footnote in much of Apollo history.

Long before NASA knew it would send humans to the moon, Houbolt was working to convince leaders and colleagues that he knew how to get there. His landmark idea was called lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR), which entailed linking two spacecraft in orbit to ensure a smooth and successful landing. LOR had never been attempted, and Houbolt’s colleagues dismissed him.

But Houbolt was spot on, and with a little rule and rank-breaking, he eventually convinced NASA’s leading engineers that he was onto something. Apollo 11 blasted off and the rest is history.

Except, not quite. Even with Houbolt’s groundbreaking work, the 13 minutes before touchdown were tumultuous, and as astronaut Neil Armstrong once put it, “rampant with unknowns.”