Abe Silverstein was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on September 15, 1908. His Russian immigrant parents, Joseph and Eva Silverstein, also had five daughters.
After graduating from high school, Abe attended Rose Polytechnic Institute, graduating in 1929 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering.
Abe took the Civil Service Commission exam for government engineers and, six weeks later, was hired as an aerodynamicist for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics – the N A C A – at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia.
After receiving a mechanical engineering professional degree from Rose Polytechnic in 1934, he continued working at Langley. There he helped design a full-scale wind tunnel.
In 1943, Abe was transferred to the NACA Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory, later known as the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, in Cleveland. In October of that year, he became the chief of the Engine Installation Division and of the wind tunnel’s research program.
During WWII he directed research in the propulsion aerodynamics of both reciprocating and early turbojet aircraft engines, resulting in major improvements to the performance of military aircraft. Additionally he pioneered research on large-scale ramjet engines.
Abe joined the NACA High-Speed Panel in 1944 and advocated building a supersonic wind tunnel in Cleveland. He was responsible for the conception, design, and construction of the nation’s first supersonic propulsion wind tunnel- the largest, fastest and most powerful in the world. These facilities contributed greatly to the development of supersonic aircraft.
By 1949, Abe was placed in charge of all research at Lewis. In 1950, he married Marion Crotser, with whom he would have three children – Joseph, Judith and David.
Silverstein was appointed associate director of the Lewis Laboratory in 1952.
In May of 1958 NACA asked Abe to help plan the organization and programs for a new space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA.
In October, he was named NASA’s Director of Space Flight Programs at NASA headquarters. Over the next three years, Silverstein was integral to planning and directing the nation’s satellite programs and its first manned space flight missions – Project Mercury, which he named; Gemini; and Apollo, which Abe also named.
When NASA sought to establish a new space flight center in May 1959, Abe selected the Maryland site, proposed it be named the Goddard Space Flight Center, and then served as acting center director.
Late in 1959, Abe chaired the seven-man “Saturn Vehicle Evaluation Committee,” known unofficially as the Silverstein Committee. Silverstein and his Lewis Laboratory colleagues advocated the use of liquid hydrogen engines in the Saturn rocket’s upper stages. This would be the first practical application of the liquid hydrogen engine, named Centaur, for use in the high thrust stage of Atlas and Titan missiles.
In 1961 NASA headquarters was reorganized and Abe was asked to manage the Apollo program. Abe decided instead to return to the NASA Lewis as its director. In Cleveland, he would still be able to make contributions to the launch vehicle program yet avoid the Washington power struggles.
Meanwhile, the Centaur program was in disarray. When asked to rescue the program by Edgar Cortright, Deputy Director of NASA’s Office of Space Science, Abe agreed, and Centaur was transferred from the Marshall Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to Lewis.
Under Abe’s guidance, the program soon provided the workhorse of NASA’s launch vehicles. Centaur was used to send the Surveyor to the Moon, the Viking to Mars, the Pioneer to Jupiter and Saturn, and Voyager to Uranus and Neptune, as well as on scores of other launches.
Arguably the highlight among Silverstein’s many achievements came in July of 1969, when the Apollo 11 mission delivered men to the lunar surface for the first time, and returned them safely to Earth.
A few weeks later, Abe retired from NASA after 40 years of government service, recognized by his peers and astronauts as “the architect of America’s space program.” He then moved into the private sector, working for the Republic Steel Corporation in Cleveland.
He died on June 1, 2001, at age 92.
Abe Silverstein was a visionary engineer whose legacy of innovation continues to this day.
Abe Silverstein is a 2015 enshrinee of the National Aviation Hall of Fame.