The term “rocket science” is part of our vernacular, but people who actually design, build, and operate rockets do not use that term. The origins of the term are obscure, but it may have originated in the months after the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, when the U.S. was having difficulty keeping up with Soviet accomplishments in space. In general, “rocket science”—with its companion phrase “brain surgery”-- implies something that is very hard to do. Launching rockets is hard, but as my colleagues in the Museum’s Department of Space History remind me, it is more a matter of engineering than science. According to folklore, as the Apollo 8 crew was returning from the first orbit of the Moon in December 1968, the young son of one of the mission controllers asked who was driving the spaceship. Astronaut William Anders replied, “I think Isaac Newton is doing most of the driving now.” Getting the Apollo 8 crew to and from the Moon was not an easy task, but the physics behind that feat was drawn from the work first described by Newton in the 17th Century. Einstein’s relativity and Schrödinger’s quantum physics played only minor roles, if any. Most of “rocket science” consists not of physics but chemical engineering—producing chemical reactions in an engine to yield the required thrust—and mechanical engineering—designing a lightweight structure able to survive the forces of a voyage into space.
Unfortunately, “Rocket Engineering,” although more accurate, does not roll off the tongue as easily. So we are stuck with the term.
There is an exception, a major one, which proves the rule: the difficulty of rendezvousing and docking spacecraft in orbit. This necessary part of the mission involves complicated physics. Solving that challenge was a feat of science, not engineering. And the person who helped to solve it was none other than Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.
In January 1963, six and a half years before the first Moon landing, Aldrin earned a degree of Doctor of Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for his 311-page thesis “Line-of-Sight Guidance Techniques for Manned Orbital Rendezvous.” At the time he was a Major in the U.S. Air Force and had yet to be selected as an astronaut. The Mercury Program was winding down, and Project Gemini, with its explicit requirement for testing rendezvous was ramping up. Aldrin specifically mentions Gemini in the abstract to the thesis, for which he stated:
“…A rendezvous guidance technique, deigned to extend man’s control capabilities, is derived, whereby, through a sight reticle programmed to vary inertially for a selected exact nominal Keplerian trajectory, the astronaut can initiate, monitor, and correct his intercept to maintain a collision course up to the braking or velocity matching maneuver.”
He dedicated his thesis “…to the crew members of this country’s present and future manned space programs. If only I could join them in their exciting endeavors!” He did: Aldrin went on to fly the last Gemini mission, Gemini 12, in November 1966, during which the spacecraft successfully rendezvoused and docked with an Agena target vehicle. And on July 20, 1969, he and Neil Armstrong walked on the surface of the Moon on Apollo 11.
Aldrin had been rejected by NASA the first time he applied to be an astronaut, but he was selected during a second round, not long after receiving his doctoral degree. He was the first astronaut to have an Sc.D. Reading the thesis today, it is clear that his work was indeed a work of “rocket science.” His Apollo 11 crewmate Neil Armstrong was a quintessential “rocket engineer.” Together they made a good team.