NASA ‘Space Planner’ Brainerd Holmes, Dead at 91

Brainerd Holmes (far left) was one of the men directly responsible for sending men to the Moon on project Apollo. Holmes passed away last week - he was 91. Photo Credit: NASA / MSFC
Brainerd Holmes (far left) was one of the men directly responsible for sending men to the Moon on project Apollo. Holmes passed away last week—he was 91. Photo Credit: NASA / MSFC

In spite of a relatively short career within NASA’s senior leadership, D. Brainerd Holmes—who died on Friday, aged 91, from complications of pneumonia—established himself as a shining star in the Apollo era, to such an extent that he found himself on the cover of Time magazine in August 1962 as the agency’s “Space Planner.” This brilliant electrical engineer saw military service in World War II and later forged an engineering and industrial career with Western Electric, Bell Laboratories, RCA, and Raytheon, and, as NASA’s Director of the Office of Manned Space Flight from September 1961 until August 1963, was instrumental in tackling the practicalities of President John F. Kennedy’s thorny goal of putting a man on the Moon. Several years later, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin accomplished that goal, Holmes told the New York Times that “we should remember such endeavors as these and know that when given a challenge Americans today can be as hard, as aggressive and as brave as the men who founded this land.”

Dyer Brainerd Holmes was born on 24 May 1921, in Brooklyn, N.Y., but grew up in East Orange, N.J. After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in electrical engineering, he entered the Navy and served throughout the final years of World War II. Returning to civilian life, Holmes worked at Bell Telephone Labs from 1945-53 and at RCA from 1953-61, where he rose to become general manager of the Major Defense Systems Division. Within this role, he oversaw the development of the Talos anti-aircraft missile and electronic systems for the Atlas missile. During this period, he also project managed a federally-sponsored effort to design and implement the Air Force’s Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS), with radar installations in Alaska, Greenland, and the United Kingdom, whose intent was to detect Soviet missile launches.

Photo Credit: NASA
Photo Credit: NASA

In September 1961, Holmes joined NASA as Director of the Office of Manned Space Flight (OMSF). According to an announcement on the 24th from Administrator James Webb, the assignment—one of several directorial positions created across various NASA centers and institutions—was effective from 1 November and reported to Associate Administrator Robert Seamans. In his new position, Holmes wasted no time in getting down to the business of exploring options for a new heavy-lift launch vehicle to achieve Kennedy’s target of boots on the Moon before 1970. This included the establishment of a working group in early November to recommend such a vehicle, evaluate the problems of orbital rendezvous, intermediate vehicles, the future development of large solid-fuelled rocket motors, and the realism of spacecraft development programs, with specific emphasis on their schedules, weights, and performance.

Within weeks, Milton Rosen, head of Launch Vehicles and Propulsion within OMSF, submitted the group’s report to Holmes. It underlined the urgency of manned orbital rendezvous as a critical steppingstone toward achieving the lunar landing. Furthermore, it established baselines for the engine configuration of what would later become the Saturn V; noting that the first stage would boast five F-1 engines, the second stage would be equipped with four or five J-2 engines, and the third stage a single J-2. However, the report also emphasised the importance of the “direct flight mode” to the Moon as a means of achieving the lunar landing and declared that “the United States should place primary emphasis” upon this mode, which offered a better chance of accomplishment within the decade. Rosen’s report focused attention upon cryogenic—rather than solid—propellants and recommended the early development of what would become the S-IVB stage.

Writing to Seamans in early December 1961, Brainerd Holmes raised the issue of orbital rendezvous in his outline of what was being dubbed “Mercury Mark II.” This expanded version of the Mercury capsule—formally named “Project Gemini” early the following month—was tasked with mastering orbital rendezvous and docking, long-duration flight, controlled land recoveries, and astronaut training. Holmes felt that rendezvous in some shape or form was essential and actually offered America greater scope to plant boots on the Moon earlier than could be achieved by direct ascent; regardless, he felt that even in a direct ascent scenario, the lunar landing craft would still need to possess rendezvous techniques as part of its operational capability.

Pictured at a press conference on 11 July 1962 to formally announce the adoption of Lunar Orbital Rendezvous for Project Apollo are (from the left) James Webb, Robert Seamans, Brainerd Holmes and Joe Shea. Photo Credit: NASA
Pictured at a press conference on 11 July 1962, to formally announce the adoption of Lunar Orbital Rendezvous for Project Apollo are (from the left) James Webb, Robert Seamans, Brainerd Holmes, and Joe Shea. Photo Credit: NASA

Seamans approved Holmes’ plan and the process got underway with a vigor and rapid financial injection of the like unseen in the U.S. civilian space program since the 1960s. Funds from NASA’s 1962 fiscal allocation, totalling $75.8 million, would be immediately released to the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston, Texas, to begin the effort to negotiate contracts and launch vehicle hardware modifications and procurements. Shortly before Christmas, Holmes set up a Manned Space Flight Management Council—whose members included himself as chair, together with Bob Gilruth and Walt Williams from MSC, Wernher von Braun and Eberhard Rees from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, and George Low, Joe Shea, William Lilly, Milton Rosen, and Charles Roadman from NASA Headquarters—to identify and resolve difficulties on the path ahead. It cannot be underestimated that Brainerd Holmes was a real mover and shaker in this most exciting time of NASA’s early existence.

By the middle of 1962, the technique of “lunar-orbital rendezvous,” whereby command and landing vehicles would execute intricate maneuvers in the vicinity of the Moon, had begun to gain precedence and by the end of October Holmes took on new duties as NASA Deputy Associate Administrator, in addition to his directorial responsibility to the OMSF. In this more senior role, all NASA field installations dealing with manned space flight issues—including MSC, Marshall, and the Launch Operations Center at Cape Canaveral—reported directly to Holmes. Within months, he had assembled a formidable team, including Joe Shea as his deputy director for systems and George Low as deputy director for OMSF Programs. Early in April 1963, Holmes testified before the Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, seeking to justify a $42.6 million increase in Project Gemini’s 1963 fiscal allocation.

Project Gemini, which was approved and received its inaugural funding under Brainerd Holmes' leadership, was an essential stepping stone in America's bid to reach the Moon. Photo Credit: NASA
Project Gemini, which was approved and received its inaugural funding under Brainerd Holmes’ leadership, was an essential steppingstone in America’s bid to reach the Moon. Photo Credit: NASA

He reported that that the increases were needed to develop a system which represented far more than a simple expansion of the earlier Mercury capsule. “Original estimates, made in December 1961 by NASA and McDonnell,” Holmes explained, “were based on minimum changes from Mercury technology.” He stressed that Gemini would require new transmission equipment to handle higher data rates, a more reliable rendezvous radar, and a heavily modified environmental control system. Then, abruptly, on 12 June 1963, Holmes announced his impending departure from NASA to return to industry. In late July, George Mueller was selected as his replacement as Deputy Associate Administrator, effective from 1 September. Over the years, it has been speculated that Holmes was unhappy with interference from the higher echelons of NASA, including Administrator James Webb himself. During Holmes’ time in the top manned space flight post, he had overseen the Mercury flights of John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and—barely a month before his departure—the Faith 7 mission of Gordon Cooper.

Following his departure from NASA, Brainerd Holmes joined Raytheon Corporation to manage the aerospace company’s military business and rose swiftly through its executive ranks. He was President at the time of his retirement in May 1986. By that time, Raytheon had acquired Beech Aircraft, for which Holmes served as chairman. Thrice married, his union with Dorothy Bonnet Holmes ended in divorce and his second wife, Roberta Donohue “Bobbie” Holmes, died in 1999. Three years after Bobbie’s death, Holmes married Mary Margaret England Wilkes Holmes, who survives him. He also leaves behind two daughters, three stepchildren, 11 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.

Brainerd Holmes may not be one of the first names that springs to mind when one considers the audacious achievement of landing a man on the Moon in the 1960s. His tenure with NASA was short, but came at a singularly critical juncture; the point at which the launch vehicle architecture and the means and methodology for getting to the Moon was being wrought. He faced criticism from congressmen and even former President Dwight D. Eisenhower—who believed sending men to the Moon was foolhardy—but Holmes rose above it all. He once famously remarked that there were always sceptics in the world, but it made no sense for the head of the project to also be a sceptic. “When a great nation is faced with a technological challenge, it has to accept or go backward,” he told Time magazine in August 1962. “Space is the future of man … and the U.S. must keep ahead in space.”


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