WASHINGTON — D. Brainerd Holmes, who directed NASA’s first manned space flight program and was instrumental in developing the plan that sent astronauts to the moon, died Jan. 11 at a hospital in Memphis. He was 91. He had complications of pneumonia, said a stepson, Pierce Ledbetter.
A resident of Wellesley, Mass., Mr. Holmes also was a top executive with Raytheon Co. for decades and was credited with helping to develop and promote several of its missile systems, including the Patriot antiballistic system.
Mr. Holmes was a multitalented engineer who had designed missiles and radar systems before 1961, when he took charge of the Mercury Seven program, now a seminal development in US history but then a stuttering, oft maligned, effort. He was entrusted with a formidable task outlined by President John F. Kennedy in a speech on May 25, 1961:
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieve the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
Under Mr. Holmes’s short but crucial tenure at NASA, John Glenn became the first US astronaut to orbit the Earth, the Gemini and Apollo manned flight programs were developed, and the basic model for the spacecraft that took Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin to the moon was designed.
“When a great nation is faced with a technological challenge, it has to accept or go backward,” Mr. Holmes said in a 1962 cover story in Time magazine. “Space is the future of man, and the US must keep ahead in space.”
Mr. Holmes was considered both a brilliant thinker and a strong administrator who could organize complex engineering and construction programs. While at RCA in the 1950s, he had a major role in developing the Talos antiaircraft missile and the electronic systems of the Atlas missile.
He also managed a federally sponsored project to design and install the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, which was intended to detect Soviet missiles launched toward the United States. The monumental enterprise included the installation of football field-sized radar reflectors in Alaska, Greenland, and England.
At NASA, Mr. Holmes oversaw the Mercury program when Glenn captivated the nation by circling the Earth on Feb. 20, 1962. There were also space flights by other astronauts in the original Mercury Seven: Alan B. Shepard Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra, and Gordon Cooper. (The seventh member, Donald K.
“Deke” Slayton, was grounded at the time by a heart condition.)
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Mr. Holmes was figuring how to accomplish Kennedy’s goal of reaching the moon. Three kinds of spacecraft were considered before NASA officials decided on a three-man mission in which a lunar module would fly around the moon while two astronauts descended to the surface in a smaller landing craft.
“We have to choose some plan,” Mr. Holmes told Time magazine in 1962, “or we’d better pack up and go home.”
In 1963, long before the first moon launch, Mr. Holmes abruptly resigned his position, reportedly because of meddling by NASA administrator James E. Webb. His departure was seen as a serious blow, but the Apollo program continued without him.
By the time Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, Mr. Holmes looked on as something of a proud father.
“Perhaps when we hear the tired old cliche that America is getting soft,” he wrote in an essay in The New York Times, “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 May 24, 1921, in Brooklyn and grew up in East Orange, N.J. He graduated from Cornell University in 1943 with a degree in electrical engineering, then served in the Navy during World War II. As an ensign in the Naval Reserve, he completed graduate studies in radar at both MIT and Bowdoin College.
He worked for Western Electric and the renowned Bell Laboratories in New Jersey before joining RCA in 1953.
After his NASA tenure, Mr. Holmes became an executive at Raytheon and eventually became president of the Waltham-based defense and electronics giant before his retirement in 1986. During his 10 years as president, sales grew 225 percent.
He oversaw the development of several missile systems, including the Patriot missile defense system. Working with Representative Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, Mr. Holmes secured government funding for the project, which became a building block to today’s more elaborate defense systems.
Mr. Holmes, an avid aviator, was also instrumental in the company’s purchase of Beech Aircraft Corp. His home near the airport in Nantucket was nicknamed Wild Blue Yonder, Ledbetter said.
‘‘I remember Brainerd as kind, witty, and very patriotic,’’ Ledbetter said. ‘‘Everything he did, he did for his country.’’
His first marriage, to Dorothy Bonnet Holmes, ended in divorce. His wife Roberta Donohue Holmes died in 1999.
In addition to his stepson, he leaves his wife since 2002, Mary Margaret England Wilkes Holmes of Wellesley; two daughters from his first marriage, Katherine Kobos of Concord, and Dorothy “Pixie” Kather of Los Altos, Calif; two other stepchildren from his third marriage, Baylor Ledbetter Stovall of Memphis and Margaret Ledbetter Weaver of Hickory Valley, Tenn.; 11 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
A private service will be held in Wellesley.
During his two years at NASA, Mr. Holmes fended off naysayers, including congressmen and former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, who believed it was foolhardy to spend billions of dollars to send
people to the moon. But Mr. Holmes believed the scientific and military credibility of the United States depended on the space program.
“We have plenty of skeptics,” he said in 1962. “They’re all over the place, and loud. But the head of the project can’t be a skeptic.”
Material from Globe staff and the Associated Press was included in this report.