Heroes of Space: Abe Silverstein

Meet the father of the Apollo programme

Abe Silverstein was heavily involved in human rights organisations, as well as the Boy Scouts of America. Image Credit: NASA

Abe Silverstein was heavily involved in human rights organisations, as well as the Boy Scouts of America. Image Credit: NASA

Born in 1908 in Terre Haute, Indiana, Abe Silverstein was a curious and clever boy who was fated to help lead the American space programme from birth to maturity. Determined and fascinated by the way machines work, he received a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering in 1929 and by 1934 he achieved a Master of Engineering from the Rose Polytechnic Institute.

Silverstein’s early proficiency and aptitude for engineering did not go unnoticed. After graduating in 1929 he was quickly snatched up by the predecessor to NASA – NACA. Known as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the agency placed Silverstein at the Langley Research Center. Employed as an aerodynamicist, Silverstein worked tirelessly on designing the Altitude Wind Tunnel, which would later be built in what was then the Lewis laboratory and now the Glenn Research Centre in Cleveland, Ohio. Talented and ambitious, Silverstein rose through the ranks until he was in charge of the Full-Scale Wind Tunnel. Not just a space pioneer, while working at Langley his aerodynamic research led to increased high-speed performance for many of the US combat aircraft that would be used in World War II.

In 1943 Silverstein was transferred to the Lewis laboratory as chief of the wind tunnel and flight division. With unrivalled knowledge he was perfectly equipped to direct research concerning propulsion and aerodynamics in the wind tunnel. This monumental research would lead to vital improvements in engine reciprocation and early turbojet aircraft engines.

After World War II had ended, Silverstein’s work continued in earnest and he played a central role in designing and constructing America’s first supersonic propulsion wind tunnels. Thanks to Silverstein’s pioneering vision, the work in the facility led to great developments toward modern-day supersonic aircraft. By 1949 he was responsible for all research conducted at Lewis and just three years later he was appointed associate director.

Silverstein had a strong influence on the Apollo programme. Image Credit: NASA

Silverstein had a strong influence on the Apollo programme. Image Credit: NASA

As such a central figure in NACA, it is no wonder that in 1958 Silverstein was called to the headquarters in Washington DC to help plan the programmes for a new space agency – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA. In need of some reliable, talented and visionary leaders, Silverstein was appointed as the director of NASA’s office of space flight programme later on that year.

At this point the US was very much in the heat of the space race against the Soviet Union and in this position Silverstein was responsible for programmes that led to both manned and unmanned spacecraft. Using his innovative spirit, he directed projects that led to the Project Mercury space flights and world famous Apollo missions, eventually putting a man on the Moon. Silverstein had an even more obvious and direct influence on the famous programmes as he is credited with naming both of them. When asked what prompted him to suggest the name ‘Apollo’ at a 1960 NASA brainstorming meeting he simply commented “No specific reason for it. It was just an attractive name.”

In 1961 Silverstein returned to Cleveland to serve as director of the NASA Lewis Research Centre where he was a central part of the development of advanced space-power propulsion systems. This led to the creation of the Centaur rocket stage, which was used to launch spacecraft.

In 1969, after 40 years of government service, Silverstein retired from NASA. However, his significant contributions to the world famous space agency did not go unrecognised. Silverstein was honoured with an abundance of awards and honourary doctorates throughout his life, including the prestigious Guggenheim Medal. Silverstein passed away on 1 June 2001 at the age of 92 and in 2014 it was announced that he would receive his rightful place in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

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