DULUTH TO THE MOON
Man’s First Steps on the Moon
Robert Gilruth leads the nation and the world to the first lunar landing.
On the hillside of Duluth resided a young boy whose dreams and goals would make a lasting impression on the nation and the world. "I was going to build something. I built some boats but I thought the airplane was much more fascinating." Robert Gilruth
Born in Nashwauk to Henry and Francis Gilruth on October 8, 1913, Robert moved to Duluth when he was just nine. The family lived in a modest home at 701 North 20th Avenue East until 1956. His maternal grandfather, a mining captain, grandmother, aunt and uncle lived just two blocks away.
"In the small sunroom adjoining the three bedrooms upstairs, Bob used to study and tinker with his planes and crystal radios. The view from there spans neat yards and tree-lined streets... It’s a wonderful spot for a boy to dream and fashion his goals for the future. Reading and quiet reflection, the kind that sharpens thoughts and is not mere daydreaming, always played an important part in the family’s home life." Duluth News Tribune, October 13, 1962
"I was going to build something. I built some boats
but I thought the airplane was much more fascinating." Robert Gilruth
The son of educators, his father was the principal of Morgan Park High School and his mother was a substitute teacher primarily in high school math and home economics. A close family, the Gilruths nurtured their young son, guiding and encouraging him to pursue his ideas and experiments.
"I started building model airplanes before the age of balsa wood and piano wire, Japanese tissue and ambroid. When the American Boy magazine came out with those things, that was a revolution but I learned about that technology from the Duluth News Tribune, which was our local paper. The newspaper had imported a man from Chicago who was a model airplane builder, champion, to teach a class of Duluth boys who might want to attend. This is how I got sort of a giant step into that business." Gilruth, NASA Interview 1986
Robert went to school at the Duluth Normal School, a training school for teachers, East Junior High School, and Duluth Central High School, graduating in 1931. He continued his education at Duluth Junior College, on the top floor of Denfeld High School and graduated in 1933 with "A’s" in all courses dealing with aeronautics, chemistry and mathematics. The depression had settled on the nation however, Gilruth chose to pursue his education at the University of Minnesota. He received his masters in aerospace engineering in 1936.
Interviewer: "You talked in your essay here about realizing that math and chemistry and physics were important, that sort of thing, but did you have a concept of what engineering was or what you were heading towards? Did you think that you were going to have to be a scientist in order to do what you wanted to do in designing airplanes? Was that your goal?" Gilruth: "Yes, it was my goal to design airplanes." NASA Interview 1986
Little did young Gilruth know, he would some day be the "Father of Human Space Flight", the "Godfather to the Astronauts".
While in graduate school, Gilruth married Jean Barnhill, a fellow aeronautical engineering student and pilot who had flown in cross country races. A friend of Amelia Earhart, Jean Gilruth claimed membership in the flying group she helped found, the 99s, a women pilot association.
"When you think about putting a man up there, that’s a different thing. That’s a lot more exciting. There are a lot of things you can do with men up in orbit." Gilruth, NASA Interview 1986
Just before Gilruth received his graduate degree, he was offered a job as a junior engineer at NACA, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, predecessor of NASA. The Gilruths moved to Hampton, Virginia. This is where they would design and build their first boat, and later design their home and await the birth of their daughter, Barbara. Two constants remained in his life from his earliest years, his love of flight and his deep affection for sailing.
Gilruth soon made his mark at NACA. During his first year, he wrote a report titled "Requirements for Satisfactory Flying Qualities of Airplanes." This report helped to make Gilruth’s reputation and he became the flying quality expert at Langley. In 1945 he was placed in charge of developing a guided missile research station. Gilruth’s organization became known as PARD, Pilotless Aircraft Research Division.
Promoted to assistant director of Langley in 1952, he became troubled by the advent of the Atomic Age of warfare and turned his focus in a new direction. "When you think about putting a man up there, that’s a different thing. That’s a lot more exciting. There are a lot of things you can do with men up in orbit." Gilruth, NASA Interview 1986
On August 1, 1958, Gilruth went before Congress and presented a manned space program and he became the leader of the Space Task Group. NASA was formed and absorbed the 8,000 employees of NACA. Project Mercury commenced and Gilruth set about selecting the first astronauts and the best engineers. Capsules were designed and rockets tested. On April 12, 1961, Soviet Yuri Gagarin beat the United States into space. This event stirred the world and frightened the United States.
May 25, 1961, just 43 days after the Soviet flight, President Kennedy stood before the nation and set forth a challenge. "This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth... But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon - it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there."
The Apollo program was born, the most audacious engineering challenge in history. Robert Gilruth was to lead it from the new Manned Spacecraft Center to be located south of Houston, Texas. In an amazingly brief time, the Manned Spacecraft Center was built, the Gemini flights were flown, and the Apollo spacecraft was built, all as Gilruth coordinated.
The Apollo program was born, the most audacious engineering challenge in history.
Robert Gilruth was to lead it.
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, placing the American flag and telling millions around the world, "one small step for man - one giant leap for mankind."
The steps from childhood to the leader of a nation’s effort, from the hillside of Duluth to one small step for man on the moon, Robert Gilruth achieved his youthful dreams of building an airplane. With this airplane, he changed the world’s vision of the earth and the possibilities of mankind.