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Game-Changing Alumnus Abe Silverstein Launched America’s Space Program

July 16, 2014

Abe Silverstein

Abe Silverstein

The historic launch of the Apollo 11 mission, on July 16, 1969, propelled America’s space program, and four days later kept a promise alumnus Abe Silverstein had made to President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to put a man on the moon within a decade.

Silverstein is among a legacy of “game-changing” Rose-Hulman alumni who as scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and inventors have advanced innovation and made the world a better place.

Silverstein, a 1929 mechanical engineering graduate who returned for an advanced degree in 1934, is considered a founding member of the United States’ space program. He had a key role in leading America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from 1961 to 1969, the critical years of the development of the country’s innovative manned space program.

In 1984, NASA named Silverstein an "Elder Statesman of Aviation," and in 1997 he received the prestigious Guggenheim Medal for "significant contributions to the advancement of flight."

An obituary, published by the Hebrew History Federation after his death in 2001, proclaims Silverstein as “The Man Who Put Men on the Moon.”

Putting a man on the moon was a distant goal when Silverstein was called to NASA’s headquarters in Washington in 1958 to be director of the Office of Flight Programs. At the time, the U.S. was in a space race with the Soviet Union, and his responsibilities included unmanned and manned Project Mercury missions and Pioneer research probes of the solar system.

Silverstein led a group of engineers and scientists that advocated the use of cryogenic liquid hydrogen fuel to launch American space explorations, a concept first introduced by Robert Goddard. Silverstein helped gain public support for the fledgling space program by proposing to the White House that a mission to the moon would be possible by the end of the decade. Four days later, on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy appeared on television to say, "...and by the end of the decade we shall go to the Moon!"

The development of the liquid hydrogen based Saturn and Centaur rockets has been proclaimed one of the top mechanical engineering achievements of all-time, and hefted spacecraft toward the planets Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Silverstein is also credited with putting the labels on the Mercury and Apollo programs. Silverstein first dropped the Apollo name at a 1960 brainstorming session to top the popular Mercury name. “No specific reason for it,” he said, according to media reports. “It was just an attractive name.”

Apollo, a son of Zeus, had many qualities, one of which was his archery ability to hit targets at great distances.

Silverstein’s scientific career began in 1929 at the Langley Research Center, where he directed aerodynamic research that led to increased high-speed performance of most of the combat aircraft of World War II. Later, he was responsible for the conception, design, and construction of the nation's first supersonic propulsion wind tunnels. This greatly contributed to the development of today’s supersonic aircraft.

Silverstein retired from NASA in 1969, shortly after Neil Armstrong’s historic space walk on June 20, 1969. He went on to work for Republic Steel Corporation, in Cleveland, from 1970-1977, where he helped develop pollution controls.

At the time of Silverstein’s death in 2001, former NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin stated, “NASA has lost a true founding member. He was a man of vision and conviction . . . His innovative, pioneering spirit lives on in the work we do today.”