D. Brainerd Holmes, who led NASA's manned spaceflight program for two crucial years, 1961 to 1963 -- a period that included John Glenn's historic orbit of Earth and helped set the stage for the first moon landing -- died on Friday in Memphis. He was 91.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, family members said.
Mr. Holmes arrived at NASA amid enormous expectations and pressure. The cold war was at its peak, and the Soviet Union had already launched the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy vowed that America would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade.
The effort became known as the Apollo program. Mr. Holmes, who as a private contractor had helped establish the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System to detect Soviet missiles launched toward the United States, was hired to get it done.
"In August of 1961, I found myself in Washington with an illustrious title, an organization of somewhat conflicting interests, and the challenge of establishing a program to send a man to the moon and bring him safely home," Mr. Holmes wrote in The New York Times in 1969, the year Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon. "It was a formidable assignment."
It was also an assignment that Mr. Holmes did not complete. He resigned two years after he arrived, with NASA facing management tension and behind on its timeline for a moon launching. But the agency had also gained ground on the Soviets in the space race. In his brief tenure, Mr. Holmes pressed hard for Congress to increase financing for NASA and for the agency to streamline its management structure, improve internal communications and commit to the method it would use to reach the moon.
He created a management council that brought together many top NASA leaders, including those from the agency's sometimes independent-minded operations in Houston; Huntsville, Ala.; and Cape Canaveral, Fla. And, after showing initial wariness, he eventually approved the way astronauts would reach the moon: the lunar-orbit rendezvous, in which the Apollo moon lander would depart from an orbiting mother ship to travel to the moon's surface.
Mr. Holmes was known to be demanding and sometimes frustrated with government bureaucracy. His strained relations with the NASA administrator who hired him, James E. Webb, were noted in news coverage of his decision to resign. Yet Mr. Holmes was regarded as an important galvanizing influence at NASA at a crucial time.
Writing in an agency history, Robert R. Gilruth, a top NASA official who spent many months trying to persuade Mr. Holmes to approve the lunar-orbit rendezvous, said the moon project's success owed much to Mr. Holmes's management-team approach, in which NASA officials "argued out our different opinions" before a course was set.
"A less skillful leader," he wrote, "might have forced an early arbitrary decision that would have made the whole task of getting to the moon virtually impossible."
Dyer Brainerd Holmes was born on May 24, 1921, in Brooklyn. He received a degree in electrical engineering from Cornell. After spending several years at Bell Labs and the Western Electric Company, Mr. Holmes joined RCA, which was heavily involved in military contracting.
It was there that he helped oversee the development of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System for the Air Force. He also helped develop the Navy's Talos antiaircraft missile program. The success of those and other ambitious projects made him an appealing candidate at NASA, which was lobbying Congress for more money and seeking better relations with private industry.
A 1961 NASA news release announcing Mr. Holmes's hiring described him as "an industrial executive known for his ability to bring multimillion-dollar government projects in on time and within predictable costs."
After leaving NASA in 1963, Mr. Holmes became a top executive at Raytheon, the missile manufacturer, and was its president when it developed the Patriot missile in the 1970s. He also served as chairman of the Beech Aircraft Corporation after it was acquired by Raytheon in 1979.
He is survived by his wife, the former Mary Margaret England Wilkes; two daughters from a previous marriage, Katherine Kobos and Dorothy Kather; a stepson, Scott Pierce Ledbetter Jr.; two stepdaughters, Baylor Ledbetter Stovall and Margaret Ledbetter Weaver; six grandchildren; five step-grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
In 1962, a cover article in Time magazine about the Apollo program focused on Mr. Holmes's role.
"The problem with systems engineering," Elmer W. Engstrom, then the president of RCA, told the magazine, "is to find people with a special knack for marrying men, machines, tactics and everything else into one large system. We could see right away that Holmes had the knack."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.