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Tom West: Duluthian who led man-on-the-moon effort dies

Dr. Robert Gilruth passed away Aug. 17 at age 87. As the person perhaps most responsible for putting a man on the moon for the first time, one would think a day of national mourning would have been held. One would think that at least his native s...

Dr. Robert Gilruth passed away Aug. 17 at age 87. As the person perhaps most responsible for putting a man on the moon for the first time, one would think a day of national mourning would have been held. One would think that at least his native state would note his passing. One would think that at least his hometown would pause in remembrance.
It wasn't to be.
When Gilruth died, the Duluth News-Tribune ran an obituary -- probably from a wire service. The obituary mentioned that Gilruth was born in Nashwauk.
Nowhere did it mention that Gilruth spent most of his growing up years in Duluth and that he is arguably the most illustrious graduate in the history of Duluth Central High School.
Here at the Budgeteer, we fared even worse, not learning about Gilruth's death until last week. Thus, these are the first words this newspaper has printed about the life and death of an incredibly fascinating Duluthian.
Gilruth's parents were educators. In fact, after leaving Nashwauk, his father, Henry, became the superintendent of schools in Hancock, Mich., in 1919. Times were tough in Hancock, and Gilruth's father got in trouble with the school board when he advocated building a new school. The school board thought that it would be less expensive and more than adequate to convert an abandoned factory into the new school. When Henry resisted, the board dismissed him.
The Gilruths moved to Duluth in 1923, where Henry sold insurance for a while before finally landing a teaching job at Morgan Park High School. Eventually, he became the principal at Morgan Park.
Meanwhile, the Gilruths enrolled their son, Bob, in the Duluth Normal School, a forerunner of the University of Minnesota-Duluth. The school's mission was to train people to be teachers. The school on East Fifth Street was not far from the Gilruth family home at 701 N. 20th Avenue East. Bob attended school there from fifth through eighth grades.
The Normal School was thought to provide an excellent education, and many of the students were from wealthy families on the east side. Gilruth once told an interviewer that it was not unusual for a student to take a $50 bill out of his or her pocket -- this in the days when $50 was more than many people made in a week.
The Gilruths were not among the wealthy, but each summer when school let out, Bob's parents would take Bob and his sister, Jean, on tours across the country, camping along the way. Some of his classmates teased him about having to camp, considering it to be beneath them. (How attitudes have changed.)
Nevertheless, the experience helped broaden his horizons, which rapidly grew far beyond those of the average Duluthian, Minnesotan or American. One day, it was announced that a model airplane contest was to be held in Duluth. Bob built an airplane and won the competition. The airplanes were propelled by winding up rubber bands. Bob won, in part, because he invented a way to "feather" the propeller -- meaning to keep it spinning after the rubber band was spent -- so as to minimize drag.
Attending East Junior High School in ninth grade, Bob was an excellent student. He was excused from semester examinations in algebra, English, Latin and general science. Besides model airplanes, in high school he also enjoyed ham radios, tennis and chess.
Bob then went to Central, where he was a good student, but not outstanding. He was usually in the top 10 percent of the class, but not always on the honor roll.
After graduating in 1931, he attended Duluth Junior College for two years, graduating with distinction and all A's in aeronautics, chemistry and mathematics. He then moved on to the University of Minnesota and its Minneapolis campus.
In 1935, he graduated with about 10 other students with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering. A year later, he earned his master's there. Because of the Depression, none of the students found work immediately, but in 1937, Bob was hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), a forerunner of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Bob had worked for NACA on rocket research for 20 years when the Soviet Union unexpectedly sent Sputnik into orbit in 1957. The United States decided that it could not let the Soviets win the space race. In 1961, Gilruth was named the first director of the Manned Spacecraft Center by President John F. Kennedy.
Gilruth served in that position until 1972, directing 25 manned space flights. Under his direction, Alan Shepherd became the first American in space. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth in space. And most significantly, Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon. Gilruth's team created the strategy of flying into orbit around the moon with the command ship and a lander linked together, and then sending the lander, carrying two astronauts, down to the lunar surface.
On Oct. 11-12, 1962, Gilruth was honored by his hometown. First, he spoke to an assembly at Central that was jammed with both adults and students. The following day, he was the guest speaker at the annual Chamber of Commerce banquet held at the Spaulding Hotel.
After retirement, his hobbies focused on boating. He designed and built the first successful sailing hydrofoil system. He also built a 52-foot multi-hull sailboat from scratch in his spare time.
Over the years, he received more than 40 national and international honors, including being enshrined in the National Space Hall of Fame. In 1981, at the Central Class of 1931's 50-year reunion, he was honored as the class' outstanding classmate.
On Aug. 28, a memorial service was held at NASA. A tree was planted in his honor. Then six planes flew overhead in formation with one flying off into the blue. His family spread his ashes around the tree.
The life of this Duluthian reminds all of us that not even the sky has to be the limit of our potential.
Tom West is the executive editor of the Budgeteer News.He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at tom.west@duluth.com

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