Robert Rowe Gilruth – Duluth Central Grad 1931

Kevin Costner plays a “composite” of the technicians in charge of America’s Space Race in his portrayal of the mythical “Al Harrison” in the Movie Hidden Figures. The principal he was playing was Duluth’s Robert Gilruth who led the American Space Race the same way that Robert Openheimer supervised the design and building of the Atom Bomb. Gilruth’s work was aided by a great many women just like the British women mathematicians, who broke Nazi Germany’s Enigma Codes during World War II. Gilruth’s “computers” were black women who like Britain’s Bletchley Circle women (in one of the best PBS Mystery series) who got John Glen into orbit and brought him back without burning up on reentry.

From the Duluth News Tribune:

First flight to the moon started here
Duluth News Tribune (MN) – July 19, 2008
Author/Byline: Chuck Frederick Duluth News Tribune

While taking in the spectacle of the Blue Angels and the high-flying thrills and roars of this weekend’s airshow, a group dedicated to preserving and celebrating Duluth’s aviation history wants you to remember a name: Robert Gilruth.

Why Robert Gilruth? Because the 1931 Duluth Central graduate ” the “father of human spaceflight” and the “godfather to the astronauts,” as he came to be known ” led our nation’s race to the moon. And because this weekend marks the 39th anniversary of the first lunar landing under his leadership.

Let me put that another way: The man responsible for Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” on July 20, 1969, grew up in Duluth.

In a frame and stucco corner house in Chester Park, to be precise.

“He made a tremendous contribution to our nation, and it’s amazing to think that we here in Duluth nurtured that young man,” said Sandra Ettestad, president of the nonprofit Duluth Aviation Institute. “He changed the world’s vision of the Earth and the possibilities of mankind. [He] achieved his youthful dreams.”

Meaning any of us can, right?

Duluth’s nurturing of Gilruth started in 1923 when he was 9 years old and his family moved here from Hancock, Mich. They had moved there from Nashwauk. His father was a superintendent of schools in both cities. In Duluth, his father landed a job teaching chemistry, physics and math at Morgan Park High School, where he later was principal. His mother taught math and home economics.

Gilruth, the second of two children, grew up at 701 N. 20th Ave. E. surrounded by family. His grandfather, a mining captain, grandmother, aunt and uncle lived two blocks away. He spent boyhood days playing with crystal-set radios and building intricate model airplanes. He and his father were very close.

“I started building model airplanes before the age of balsa wood and piano wire,” he recalled in a 1986 interview with NASA. “When the American Boy magazine came out with those things, that was a revolution, but I learned about that technology from the Duluth News Tribune. [The newspaper] had imported a man from Chicago who was a model airplane builder [and] champion. [He taught] a class of Duluth boys who might want to attend. This is how I got sort of a giant step into that business.”

Gilruth breezed through Duluth’s East Junior High School and Central High School. He earned straight As in aeronautics, chemistry and math at Duluth Junior College, which was on the top floor of Denfeld High School. He graduated in 1933. Three years after that, he added a masters degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Minnesota to his rapidly growing resume.

While at the university, he married Jean Barnhill, a fellow aeronautical engineering student and a pilot who flew cross-country races, who was a friend to Amelia Earhart and who founded a women’s pilots association.

Before he even finished graduate school, Gilruth was recruited to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, the predecessor of NASA. The job took him to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia where he and his wife had a daughter, Barbara. He was a flying quality expert at Langley and in 1945 was placed in charge of developing a guided-missile research station. In 1952, he was named assistant base director.

But he was dreaming bigger. “There are a lot of things you can do with men up in orbit,” he recalled thinking to himself in the interview with NASA.

On Aug. 1, 1958, Gilruth pitched to Congress the idea of creating a manned space program. The politicians were impressed, and Gilruth was pegged to lead the Space Task Group. In short order, NASA was formed and Project Mercury, the nation’s first human spaceflight program, was created. Gilruth handpicked the first astronauts and hired the nation’s brightest engineers. Capsules were designed and rockets tested.

But not quite fast enough. On April 12, 1961, the Soviets beat the U.S. into space. President John F. Kennedy took it as a challenge.

“This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth,” the president announced. “In a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon ” it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”

Gilruth was chosen to lead the human spaceflight program, known as the Apollo Program. Its goal was landing a man on the moon. And Gilruth promised just that in the fall of 1962 when he returned to Duluth and was welcomed back as a hero. Mayor George D. Johnson proclaimed it Bob Gilruth Day, and the auditorium at Central High School filled to the rafters with Duluthians eager to hear him speak. A giant banner hung from the balcony, declaring Gilruth the “pride of Central.”

Moved by his hometown’s tribute and welcome, Gilruth paused for a long moment. Then, in a soft voice brimming with emotion, he urged young Duluthians to prepare so they, too, could help their nation as it moved into the space age.

“I have received many honors, but I have never felt quite as humble as I do at this moment,” he said. “I feel quite confident that we will make manned landings on the moon within this decade. In fact, I am not only confident of this, I firmly believe we’ll be on the moon in less than 10 years.”

Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon less than seven years later. In Houston, Gilruth cheered with a nation.

“He was not an easy boy to get to know,” the News Tribune wrote of Gilruth, days before his triumphant return in October 1962. (He died Aug. 17, 2000, at age 87.) “He was neither a hellion nor an introvert. He was neither average nor did he display to those of his own age signs of unusual brilliance. … He was a boy of hobbies and strong purpose, yet beset by deep self doubts.”

In other words, he was a typical Duluth kid. Who achieved greatness. Meaning any of us can, right? Chuck Frederick is the News Tribune’s deputy editorial page editor. He can be reached at 723-5316 or cfrederick@duluth news.com.