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Gilruth, architect of manned spaceflight dies

August 17, 2000 — Dr. Robert R. Gilruth, an aerospace scientist, engineer and a pioneer of the American space program during the days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, is dead after a lengthy illness. He was 86.

During his 40-year career with NASA and its predecessor the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, Gilruth led many of the nation's leading research and spaceflight operations.

In 1961, Dr. Gilruth was named director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. The complex later would become known as the Johnson Space Center.

"Gilruth's management style developed the best minds in the space program into the finest organization of its time," said Chris Kraft, who served as deputy director of the MSC and director of Flight Operations 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," added Dr. Kraft. "Personally, I had a higher regard for Gilruth than any other person in my lifetime."

A specialist in flight research, Dr. Gilruth organized an engineering team in 1945 to investigate experimental rocket-powered aircraft, which later became the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division and led to NACA's Wallops Island launching range.

In 1952, Dr. 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 spacecraft when the Soviet Union launched the world's first 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," Dr. Gilruth said in 1972. "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."

When NASA was founded in 1958, Gilruth was named director of the Space Task Group at Langley. Under his lead, they worked in seemingly ad hoc fashion during the next three years but, according to Dr. Gilruth, came up with all the basic principles of Project Mercury, including the conical blunt-ended capsule, astronaut qualifications, launch criteria and mission operation procedures.

Later at the MSC, more than 1,400 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 changed into what Gilruth called "the free world's largest and most advanced research and development center devoted to manned space flight."

During his 10-years as MSC director, Gilruth directed 25 manned space flights, including Alan Shepard's Mercury flight in May 1961, the first lunar landing by Apollo 11 in July 1969, the rescue of Apollo 13 in 1970 through Apollo 15 in July 1971.

George Low, director of the lunar landing program, once said, "There is no question that without Bob Gilruth there would not have been a Mercury, Gemini, or an Apollo program. He built in terms of what he felt was needed to run a manned space flight programÉ 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."

"His courage to explore the unknown, his insistence on following strict scientific procedures, and his technical expertise directly contributed to the ultimate success of the American manned space program and the landing of a man on the moon," said NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin.

After leaving as MSC director in January 1972, Gilruth served as director of key personnel development at NASA Headquarters. When he retired in December 1973, he became a consultant for the space agency.

Gilruth was born October 8, 1913 in Nashwauk, MN. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in aerospace engineering in 1935 and a master's degree in 1936 from the University of Minnesota. He then joined the NACA.

When he wasn't contemplating trips to the moon, Dr. Gilruth headed for Galveston Bay near the space center. An avid boater, he designed the first successful sailing hydrofoil system and participated in hydrofoil projects.

A member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Gilruth 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.

Dr. Gilruth has been honored with the highest awards given by the aerospace industry and academia — most notable 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, NASA's Distinguished Service Medal, the President's Award for Distinguished Federal Service.

Gilruth also received the prestigious Goddard Memorial Trophy of the National Rocket Club, the Louis W. Hill Space Transportation Award, the Reed Aeronautics Award and the National Aeronautical Association and National Aviation Club's 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. He became one of the first people installed in the National Space Hall of Fame.

The Gilruth family is planning private memorial services. Expressions of sympathy may be made to the Evans Gilruth Foundation, 7076 Glanamman Way, Warrenton, Virginia 20187.

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