Duluth to the Moon

by Sandra Ettestad
Founder & President, Duluth Aviation Institute
Published in Midwest Flyer – October/November 2019 Issue

DULUTH, MINN. – Like many great accomplishments, the goal began with one small step that became one giant leap for all mankind. In 1925 at the age of 12, Robert Gilruth entered a model airplane contest sponsored by the Duluth News Tribune. He built a model of Lindbergh’s airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis.

Born in Nashwauk, Minnesota, Gilruth moved to Duluth when his father was hired as a teacher in the local school district. Gilruth attended the Duluth Normal School and graduated in 1931 from Duluth Central High School. At the height of the Great Depression, he went to Duluth Junior College located on the top floor of Denfeld High School. His parents did not have enough money to send him to the state university. Mentored by Lewis A. Rodert, a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota, Gilruth pursued his interest in aviation while at junior college. Rodert taught the course, Principles of Flight, to Gilruth and two other students.

Gilruth transferred to the University of Minnesota in his junior year. Preparing for graduation, he decided to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). During the Great Depression with no positions open at NACA, Gilruth pursued a Master of Science degree in aeronautical engineering. He completed his degree in 1936, writing a thesis on “The Effect of Wing Tip Propellers on the Aerodynamic Characteristics of a Low Aspect Ratio Wing”.

While writing his thesis, Gilruth was offered a position at NACA as an aeronautical engineer at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia. There, he worked in flight research writing many reports for numerous studies. The ultimate study by Gilruth came in 1943 when he wrote “Requirements for Satisfactory Flying Qualities of Airplanes”. This report formed the basis of subsequent military specifications for stability and control of airplanes.

In 1945, Gilruth had a chance to lead his own organization, Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD). While he ran PARD, he became fascinated with the prospect of human spaceflight and worked on convincing the American public that human spaceflight was possible. NACA leadership promoted Gilruth to Assistant Director of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1952. NACA was absorbed by NASA in 1958. At Langley, Gilruth was project manager of the Space Task Group and assistant director of the new NASA Space Project Center.

The Space Task Group moved forward with Project Mercury and the establishment of an astronaut corps. NASA’s selection for the astronaut corps envisioned pilots operating experimental flying machines first and later scientists. Gilruth’s Space Task Group narrowed the candidates to 18. Gilruth made the final selection of seven men that became heroes to the American public. Gilruth had enormous respect for the astronauts and realized they embodied the deepest virtues of the United States.

May of 1961, Robert Gilruth’s life changed forever when President John F. Kennedy announced the decision to land an American on the Moon by the end of the decade. Gilruth agreed to take on the responsibility for managing the human element of the program. Kennedy gave Gilruth an opportunity to lead by approving the Apollo program.

From the NASA budget, approximately 50 percent went directly to human spaceflight under the direction of Gilruth and his team. Gilruth moved to Houston, Texas and became the first director of the Manned Spacecraft Center, later renamed the Johnson Space Center. On May 5, 1961, the first launch of Mercury was piloted by Alan Shepard.

Gilruth oversaw all aspects of his responsibilities, hired excellent people, and orchestrated 200 contractors and 150 subcontractors for the development of the Apollo program and the goal of human spaceflight. From Mercury to Gemini and Apollo, challenges, tragedy and success were endured for the greater goal of putting man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the Moon’s surface for the Apollo 11 mission, while Michael Collins remained circling in the command module. All three astronauts safely returned to earth on July 24, 1969.

The Gilruth Continuum, an educational program of the Duluth Aviation Institute, has taught over 6,000 students in Duluth, Hermantown, and Proctor, Minn. The aviation science curriculum is taught in coordination with the associated school districts and the 6th grade science teachers. The program started with one small step — a letter to the 6th grade science teachers.

The Duluth Aviation Institute’s vision is to have a community inspired and enriched by the art and science of aviation. The institute’s goal is to inspire students to land another Eagle and come again in peace for all mankind (duluthaviationinstitute.org).

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