Robert Rowe Gilruth, a pioneer in U.S. aviation and space flight
who is often considered "the father" of America's
human space flight program, died today in Charlottesville, Va.,
after a lengthy illness. He was 86.
his 40-year career with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration,
or NASA, and its predecessor the National Advisory Committee
for Aeronautics, or NACA, Dr. Gilruth led the development of
flying qualities for airplanes, the use of rockets to achieve
data at supersonic speeds and the establishment of many of the
nation's leading flight research and human space flight operations
management style developed the best minds in the space program
into the finest organization of its time," said Dr. Christopher
Kraft Jr., who served as deputy director of the Manned Spacecraft
Center and mission operations director during Gilruth's tenure.
were many heroes during the early days of the space program
but Bob Gilruth was the most respected of them all and, particularly,
by those who knew what it took to reach the goals that were
established. Personally, I had a higher regard for Gilruth than
any other person in my lifetime."
in flight research, Gilruth organized an engineering team in
1945 to investigate experimental rocket-power aircraft, which
later became the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division and led
to the creation of NACA's Wallops Island launching range. In
1952, Gilruth was appointed assistant director of the Langley
Laboratory responsible for investigations in high-temperature
structures and dynamics loads and for hypersonic aerodynamics
research at Wallops Island.
focus suddenly shifted from rocket-powered planes to rocket
ships when Russia launched the world's first man-made satellite
Sputnik in 1957.
can recall watching the sunlight reflect off of Sputnik as it
passed over my home on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia...It put
a new sense of value and urgency on things we had been doing.
When one month later the dog, Laika, was placed in orbit in
Sputnik II, I was sure that the Russians were planning for man-in-space,"
Gilruth said at the Sixth International History of Astronautics
Symposium in Vienna Austria in 1972.
would be the person charged with leading the United States across
the Space Race finishing line. When NASA was charted in 1958,
Dr. Gilruth became director of the Space Task Group at Langley
that would evolve into the nucleus of the man-in-space program.
The Space Task Group, comprised of Gilruth and 34 other Langley
employees, worked in seemingly ad hoc fashion during the next
three years, but according to Gilruth, "came up with all
the basic principles of Project Mercury" including the
conical, blunt-ended capsule that would be launched on a Redstone
or Atlas rocket, astronaut qualifications, launch criteria and
mission operation procedures.
Gilruth was appointed the first director of the new Manned Spacecraft
Center, later the Lyndon B. Johnson Spaceflight Center, in Houston,
Texas, when the Space Task Group relocated there in 1961. More
than 1,400 MSC employees worked in a dozen locations around
Houston including shopping centers, apartment complexes and
vacant stores while a 1,600-acre cattle pasture south of the
city was transformed into what he called, "the free world's
largest and most advanced research and development center devoted
to manned spaceflight."
his 10-year tenure as MSC director, Gilruth directed 25 human
space flights from Alan Shepard's first Mercury flight in May
1961, including the first lunar landing by Apollo 11 in July
1969, the dramatic rescue of Apollo 13 in 1970 through Apollo
15 in July 1971.
is "... Bob Gilruth's center," George Low, director
of the Apollo lunar landing program once commented during an
interview. "He built in terms of what he felt was needed
to run a manned spaceflight program...it is clear to all who
have been associated with him that he has been the leader of
all that is manned spaceflight in this country. There is no
question that without Bob Gilruth there would not have been
a Mercury, Gemini, or an Apollo program."
retiring as MSC director in January 1972, he served as director,
key personnel development, at NASA Headquarters in Washington
D.C., but had no direct space flight role in this position.
Upon retirement from the space agency in December 1973, he became
a consultant to NASA Headquarters on an as needed basis.
Rowe Gilruth was born October 8, 1913 in Nashwauk, Minnesota.
He received his bachelor of science degree in aerospace engineering
in 1935 and a master's degree in 1936 from the University of
Minnesota and joined NACA after graduation.
he wasn't contemplating trips to the Moon, Gilruth headed for
Galveston Bay near the space center. An avid boater, he built
the first successful sailing hydrofoil system and participated
in many hydrofoil projects. He spent much of his free time designing
and building the 52-foot multi-hull sailboat "Outrigger"
-- a project spanning 10 years.
was a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the
National Academy of Sciences. He was named an honorary fellow
in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a
fellow in the American Astronautical Society, an honorary fellow
of the Royal Aeronautical Society and a member of the International
Academy of Astronautics.
has been honored with the highest awards given by the aerospace
industry and academia. Most notably are the Sylvanus Albert
Reed Award from the Institute of Aerospace Sciences; U.S. Chamber
of Commerce Great Living American Award; the Daniel and Florence
Guggenheim International Astronautics Award of the International
Academy of Astronautics; American Society of Mechanical Engineers
Award; the City of New York Medal of Honor; Spirit of St. Louis
Medal by the American Society of Engineers; several NASA Distinguished
Service Medals; and the President's Award for Distinguished
American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics presented
Gilruth with its highest awards including the Goddard Astronautics
Award, the Louis W. Hill Space Transportation Award, the Reed
Aeronautics Award and the Robert J. Collier Trophy for "the
greatest achievement in aeronautics and astronautics in America."
awarded honorary doctorate degrees from the University of Minnesota,
the Indiana Institute of Technology, George Washington University,
Michigan Technological University and New Mexico State University.
Dr. Gilruth became one of the first 10 people installed in the
National Space Hall of Fame.
Gilruth family plans a private memorial service. Expressions
of sympathy may be made to the Evans-Gilruth Foundation, 7076
Glanamman Way, Warranton, VA 20187.