Robert Gilruth: Space-Race Hero

Robert Gilruth: Space-Race Hero

A Minnesotan who built the organization that put America into space receives posthumous honors.

Robert Rowe Gilruth isn’t a household name, nor was he when he passed away in 2000.

Descriptions of his legacy, though, affirm his merit. Those at NASA know him as “the father of America’s human space flight program” and one of the first 10 people inducted into the National Space Hall of Fame. He was the first director of the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston, a complex later renamed the Johnson Space Center, where he pioneered construction of the first rocket to bring a man safely to the moon and back, essentially winning the space race. During his 10-year stay at MSC as flight director, he spearheaded 25 human space flights—most notably the Mercury, Apollo and Gemini programs.

Upon advising President Kennedy to “start from scratch” after Russia’s successful Sputnik I and II launches, Gilruth transformed a 1,600-acre cattle pasture in Houston. Today, the space center employs some 3,000 full-time workers with a budget of $4.4 billion.

“There were many heroes during the early days of the space program, but Bob Gilruth was the most respected of them all and particularly by those who know what it took to reach the goals that were established,” says Christopher Kraft Jr., Gilruth’s protégé and MSC’s flight director after Gilruth retired. “Personally, I had a higher regard for Gilruth than any other person in my lifetime.”

Growing up in Duluth, Gilruth wasn’t the greatest student, but he excelled at building model airplanes. He earned his bachelor of science and master’s from the University of Minnesota, which will host an event in his honor at TCF Bank Stadium on April 23, celebrating his rather belated induction into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame (info and tickets: Gilruth was nominated by air and space education nonprofit AirSpace Minnesota (

“We are urging people to come and celebrate,” says Kristi Rollag Wangstad, president of AirSpace Minnesota. “It’s a tragedy that people don’t know anything about him. After all, launching a man to the moon is the most audacious engineering challenge in history.”