Abe Silverstein and the Race to the Moon

Posted on Mon, July 1, 2019

As we approach the 50thanniversary of Apollo 11, many will celebrate the astronauts, Mission Control, and John F. Kennedy for their roles in the historic Moon landing. Among NASA leaders, however, only Marshall Space Flight Center director Wernher von Braun is likely to be highlighted because of his Nazi past, his salesmanship for spaceflight before and during the Space Race, and his role in developing the Saturn V Moon rocket. As a biographer of von Braun, I will not argue with his importance, but he often overshadows other key NASA managers who were also influential in the Apollo program. One of them was Abraham Silverstein (1908-2001), who created and named the program and, most critically, pushed the adoption of liquid hydrogen as a rocket fuel for the boosters that launched Apollo. 

Silverstein, a mechanical engineer from Terre Haute, Indiana, took the civil service exam on a whim in 1929 and was invited to work at the Langley Memorial Laboratory of NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). He joined the team designing the world’s largest wind tunnel, the Full Scale Wind Tunnel. He did aerodynamic research there and went on to become the tunnel’s head in 1940. In 1943, he transferred to NACA’s new aircraft engine laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio, which later became the NASA Lewis (now Glenn) Research Center. He was instrumental in developing some of the earliest American jet engines and supersonic wind tunnels. In the 1950s his teams explored the uses of nuclear reactors and liquid hydrogen for aircraft and rocket propulsion. 

In the wake of Sputnik’s October 1957 launch and the U.S.-Soviet Space Race that followed, Abe Silverstein was called to NACA headquarters to help turn the aeronautical research organization into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as President Dwight Eisenhower proposed. He moved to Washington full-time in May 1958, and after the new agency formally came into existence on October 1, he became the Chief of Space Flight Programs, then the number-three-position at NASA. Under his watch, the 1959 Long Range Plan chose sending humans to the Moon as the next major goal after Project Mercury, which aimed to put a man into orbit before the Soviets. Silverstein was instrumental in creating and naming the Apollo program, first proposed in 1960.

His most crucial role was advancing the development of liquid-hydrogen rocket technology. At Lewis he had directed experiments with the volatile, super-cold (-423°F) liquid in jet engines. In the process, the Lewis center developed techniques for handling it. Pioneering rocket theorists had long shown that burning liquid hydrogen with liquid oxygen produced one of the highest possible energy combinations. But established rocket engineers, notably Wernher von Braun and his U.S. Army missile team in Huntsville, Alabama, considered hydrogen too troublesome. In late 1959, after Eisenhower approved the transfer of von Braun’s group to NASA, Silverstein headed a committee examining future versions of Huntsville’s Saturn rocket. He and his closest associates pushed von Braun into taking hydrogen seriously by demonstrating its greatly superior performance. The committee decided that all Saturn upper stages would use it, which became critical to creating a rocket powerful enough to send astronauts to the Moon. Von Braun later gave Silverstein full credit for this fundamental decision.

Eisenhower had no sympathy for racing the Soviets to the Moon and did not approve of the Apollo Program. But twelve weeks after Kennedy came into office in 1961, the new president was confronted on April 12 by a new Soviet feat: the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin. Five days later, CIA-sponsored Cuban exiles suffered a catastrophic defeat during their attempted invasion of Soviet-leaning Cuba, embarrassing the administration. Kennedy asked his Vice President, Lyndon Johnson, to find a space program “we could win.” Under James Webb, the new NASA Administrator, the agency’s leadership, notably Silverstein and von Braun, had been studying the acceleration of Saturn and Apollo. They quickly endorsed the most ambitious option, sending astronauts to land on the Moon and return safely to the Earth, the only one that gave the United States a “sporting chance,” to use von Braun’s words, of beating the Soviets. 

NASA administrator James Webb with Lewis Research Center director Abe Silverstein during a tour of Plum Brook Reactor Facility in December 1961.

After Kennedy formally proposed the Moon landing to Congress on May 25, 1961, the agency contemplated how it would reorganize to accomplish this daunting mission, which would entail a massive expansion of its budget and facilities. Webb and his deputies, Hugh Dryden and Robert Seamans, decided to break up Silverstein’s directorate and create an Office of Manned Space Flight to carry out Apollo. Silverstein and von Braun were the two best internal candidates to head it, but in the end the triumvirate thought neither was ideally suited. Abe Silverstein, who did not like the reorganization, asked for the directorship of Lewis Research Center, which was then open. He and his family returned to Cleveland. 

There Silverstein made one more important contribution to liquid-hydrogen rocket technology and Apollo. A contractor had proposed Centaur, the first liquid-hydrogen rocket stage, it in the late 1950s. After NASA was founded, Centaur was transferred from U.S. Air Force funding to von Braun’s Marshall Center, but the latter did not do a good job managing it. Although von Braun’s team was brilliant with its own Saturn programs, it suffered from “not-invented-here” syndrome. After the first Atlas-Centaur rocket blew up during launch in spring 1962, von Braun wanted to cancel the project, so Silverstein asked to take it on. Lewis salvaged the stage, and with it the Surveyor robotic lunar lander project, which needed the Atlas-Centaur as a launch vehicle. Surveyors in 1966 provided the first ground truth of what the lunar surface was like, a critical piece of information for Apollo. Lewis also carried out a number of other research projects supporting the Moon landing.

 Silverstein retired in mid-1969, just as NASA achieved Kennedy’s goal. He remained active in corporate and community positions in Cleveland for years afterward. His seminal role in the early Moon race has largely been overlooked, but as we celebrate Apollo 11, it behooves us to remember Abe Silverstein and the many other key individuals who made that achievement possible. 

Michael J. Neufeld is a senior curator in the Museum’s Space History Department and lead curator for Destination Moon, a new exhibition that opens in the National Mall Building in 2022, and for Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission, a travelling exhibit featuring the command module Columbia

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