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On Saturday, March 23, Tom Kelly, Grumman chief engineer for the Apollo Lunar Module and author of Moon Lander: How We Developed The Apollo Lunar Module, died after a long battle with pulmonary fibrosis at his home in Cutchogue. He was 72.

A tribute to lunar module engineer Kelly

by Andrew Chaikin, author A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts

March 30, 2002

In 1962, when Tom Kelly was handed the greatest engineering challenge of the century, he was full of enthusiasm — and he needed it. Building history's first manned moon lander was a staggering assignment. Nothing like it had ever been attempted, except in science fiction. And it was even more difficult because it came with a deadline: President Kennedy had challenged the U.S. to make the moon landing by the end of the decade.

At Grumman Aerospace on Long Island, Kelly and his team knew the real moon lander — officially called the Lunar Module, or "LEM" — couldn't be like a science fiction spaceship. The biggest problem was weight: Every pound of lunar module had to be carried all the way to the surface of the moon. There would be no plush leather seats here — in fact, no seats at all. Instead, the astronauts would fly the lem standing up, looking through a pair of small triangular windows. The cabin walls were extremely thin, in some places no thicker than a few sheets of aluminum foil.

Above all, the Lunar Module was a classic case of function over form. It ended up looking more like a giant mechanical spider than a spaceship. One of the astronauts said it was the ugliest flying machine he'd ever seen. But that didn't matter. The lem didn't need to be sleek, it just needed to work.

It's an adage among engineers that designers don't always make good builders. But Grumman managers had so much confidence in Kelly that in 1967, with the program seriously behind schedule, they put Kelly in charge of the team to build the actual Lunar Modules. And he didn't let them down.

Six lunar modules landed on the moon. Part of those lems, the descent stages with their spidery landing legs, are still up there. Years later Kelly liked to gather his grandchildren by the telescope, and point it at the moon. He'd tease them by saying, "Can't you see them up there? Why can't you guys see them?" Of course, no telescope is powerful enough to show those Lunar Modules. But when Tom Kelly looked up at the moon, he could see them — and he didn't need a telescope.


The preceding was first aired on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. It is reprinted here with permission of the author. For an audio version of this tribute, click here.

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