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Dr. Robert R. Gilruth.

"There were many heroes during the early days of the space program but Bob Gilruth was the most respected of them all. . ."

Christopher Kraft Jr.
Former director, Johnson Space Center
Expressions of sympathy may be made to:
Evans-Gilruth Foundation
  7076 Glanamman Way
  Warranton, VA 20187




Dr. 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.

During 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 facilities.

"Gilruth's 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.

"There 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."

A specialist 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.

Gilruth's focus suddenly shifted from rocket-powered planes to rocket ships when Russia launched the world's first man-made satellite Sputnik in 1957.

"I 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.

Gilruth 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.

Dr. 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."

During 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.

MSC 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 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."

After 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.

Robert 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.

When 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.

He 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.

Gilruth 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 Federal Service.

The 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."

He was 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.

The Gilruth family plans a private memorial service. Expressions of sympathy may be made to the Evans-Gilruth Foundation, 7076 Glanamman Way, Warranton, VA 20187.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 04/07/2002
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