Musician Bob Dylan wasn’t the only kid named Robert who helped shape American history in the 1960s after a childhood forged in Duluth and up on the nearby Iron Range.
Robert Gilruth, the Depression-era son of Duluth schoolteachers, will be honored this week for running NASA’s manned space program from its Sputnik-chasing start through the 1969 moon walk.
“No one here knows his name, but he recommended going to the moon to President Kennedy,” said Kristi Rollag Wangstad, president of the science and technology nonprofit, AirSpace Minnesota.
Gilruth was one of those forgotten guys in the white shirts and skinny ties in Houston, directing 25 manned space flights — including Alan Shepard’s Project Mercury breakthrough in 1961, the 1969 lunar landing and the 1970 “Houston, we’ve had a problem …” Apollo 13 rescue.
Before Gilruth’s tenure, in fact, Houston had no problems. The space center site was just a pasture. His management style, along with his keen engineering, helped make Kennedy’s pipe dream a reality.
Now, 15 years after his death at 86, Gilruth will be feted in a clubroom at TCF Bank Stadium on April 23 by AirSpace Minnesota. Two days later, he’ll be inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame.
“There were many heroes during the early days of the space program, but Bob Gilruth was the most respected of them all,” his deputy director, Christopher Kraft, said when Gilruth died in 2000.
Gilruth was born Oct. 8, 1913, in the Iron Range town of Nashwauk, west of Hibbing. His father, Henry, was an Iowa farm-kid-turned-teacher. He served as Nashwauk’s school superintendent when Robert and his older sister were born. Their mother, Frances, was a Michigan-born teacher and miner’s granddaughter.
After a stint in Michigan, the Gilruths moved to Duluth when Robert was 9, living until 1956 in a home on the hillside at 701 N. 20th Av. E. (Young Dylan was blowin’ in the wind less than two miles away, at 519 N. 3rd Av. E.)
As a kid, Gilruth tinkered in the tiny sunroom adjacent to the home’s three bedrooms. He fiddled with crystal radios. He fashioned little boats like the ones he saw down on Lake Superior before getting into model airplanes.
“I was going to build something,” he said, years later. “I built some boats but I thought the airplane was much more fascinating.”
After all, he was 13 when another Minnesotan, Charles Lindbergh, flew solo to Paris. According to a Duluth News Tribune story about him later in his life, the view from Gilruth’s small sunroom overlooked “neat yards and tree-lined streets … 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.”
Gilruth served as math club president at Duluth Central High School and ran track. His father by then was principal of Morgan Park High School and his mother was teaching math.
When the Duluth newspaper hired a reporter from Chicago who offered to teach a class on model airplanes, Gilruth signed up.
“That was before the age of balsa wood,” he later said, when they used piano wire, synthetic amber, Japanese tissue and other ideas from American Boy magazine to craft little planes.
Gilruth graduated from high school in 1931 as the Depression took hold. For two years, he studied at the Duluth Junior College housed on the top floor at Denfeld High School. With jobs scarce, he headed to the University of Minnesota, earning a master’s degree in aerospace engineering in 1936.
He fell in love with a fellow nerd in grad school, marrying Jean Barnhill — an aeronautical engineering student and pilot. Jean was pals with Amelia Earhart and organized a group of female pilots, the 99s, who participated in cross-country air races.
The Gilruths left Minnesota for Hampton, Va., in the late-1930s when Bob landed a junior engineer’s job with NASA precursor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics. A baby daughter, Barbara, joined the family as Bob’s status climbed at the Langley Research Center. He supervised guided missile research.
Enter Sputnik, the Russians’ orbiting satellite that jump-started the space race in 1957. “I can recall watching the sunlight reflect off Sputnik as it passed over my home on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia,” Gilruth said in a 1972 interview. “It put a sense of value and urgency on things we’d been doing.”
When the Russians sent a dog named Laika into space a month later, it was like a cold glass of water in Gilruth’s face.
“When I saw the dog go up, I said, ‘My God, we better get going,” he later said. “I was sure the Russians were planning for man-in-space.”
On Aug. 1, 1958, Gilruth testified before Congress about manned space flights. As he feared, the Russians again beat the Americans to it with Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 space flight. Just seven weeks later, President John Kennedy vowed to land an American on the moon by decade’s end. The idea came up when Gilruth and Kennedy had spoken a few weeks earlier.
The weight of that braggadocio landed smack-dab on Gilruth’s shoulders. Tackling the mind-boggling engineering dilemma of his day, Gilruth would supervise Gemini flights and run the Apollo program from the new Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston.
“He viewed it as a management challenge as much as an engineering challenge,” Rollag Wanstad said.
When Neil Armstrong took “one small step for man [and] one giant leap for mankind” in 1969, the 55-year-old Gilruth had come a long way from the boats and planes he constructed as a kid.
Gilruth returned twice to Duluth: In 1962, the city proclaimed Oct. 12 Bob Gilruth Day shortly after Kennedy awarded him a Distinguished Service Medal. Gilruth said he was moved by the assembly at his old Central High School. He came again in 1981 for his 50th reunion.
“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 Goldin after Gilruth died.
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org