Joseph Gavin: Aerospace engineer who played an integral part in the first moon landing

Joseph Gavin was an MIT engineer who helped put the first men on the moon and led the team to save the Apollo 13 crew from disaster.

As director of the Lunar Module programme for Apollo, Gavin had one of the most important roles during America's race to the moon. He headed the 7,500-strong team that developed the Eagle, the clunky, lunar-module portion of the Apollo spacecraft that settled on the lunar surface, the Sea of Tranquillity, on 20 July 1969.

As the world watched, the Apollo 11 commander, Neil Armstrong, announced to mission control: "Houston, Tranquillity Base here... The Eagle has landed." In all, the landing craft spent 21 hours and 31 minutes on the lunar surface before returning the three astronauts to Earth. The landing fulfilled President Kennedy's goal of reaching the moon before the Soviet Union and by the end of the 1960s.

Joseph Gleason Gavin Jr was born in 1920 in Somerville, Massachusetts. As he grew up he was enthralled by the imaginary space exploits of the film-hero Buck Rogers and the real exploits of the aviator Charles Lindbergh. Gavin once recalled travelling for hours to see his hero "Lucky Lindy" land at a small airfield in Vermont.

Graduating from Boston Latin School in 1937, Gavin went on to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he earned a BSc (1941) and then his Masters (1942) in aeronautical engineering. While there, he captained the 1941 varsity (heavyweight) crew. During the Second World War, he was a lieutenant in the US Navy Reserve, Bureau of Aeronautics, where he spent four years, and was involved in the early work on jet propulsion. In 1946, he joined Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, later Grumman Aerospace Corporation, as a design engineer, working initially on Navy fighters.

In 1962, following his role as chief missile and space engineer for Grumman, Gavin became director of the Lunar Module Programme. His job was to ensure that the craft, a combination two-stage rocket and two-man spacecraft, could land gently on the moon's surface, and take off again to re-join the larger spacecraft in lunar orbit.

The module had to be light, to limit energy consumption and battery size and, as there is no air resistance on the moon, reverse acceleration was needed to stop forward progress. Everything was tested time and again, but with testing unavailable under lunar conditions, an extensive array of backup systems had to be installed too, while still minimising weight. Consequently, the module's estimated cost of $350m soon rose to $1.5bn.

The margins for error were so tiny that when, on the actual flight, Armstrong changed landing sites because of rocks, the craft had only 20 seconds of fuel remaining in its tanks. Gavin recalled, "We literally held our breath." Even more nerve-racking was the lift-off from the moon's surface, a critical step that could not be simulated in terrestrial tests. As it was, Armstrong and Col. Edwin Aldrin Jr, the lunar-module pilot, were able to rejoin the third member of the mission, Lt. Col. Michael Collins, who was orbiting the moon in the command module, Columbia. This success was repeated on five more missions between 1969 and 1972. In all, Grumman built a dozen modules.

Gavin recalled his experiences with the Apollo programme, saying "There's a certain exuberance that comes from being out on the edge of technology, where things are not certain, where there is some risk, and where you make something work." That risk, however, became very real in 1970 when the Apollo 13 mission was rocked after an oxygen tank exploded and severely damaged the spacecraft. Nasa and Grumman engineers, headed by Gavin, scrambled to improvise an emergency procedure to save the three-man crew by using the lunar module as a lifeboat to get the astronauts back to Earth. "That was the tensest episode in my career," Gavin said. "The team at Grumman developed a personal relationship with every one of the astronauts in the Apollo era. We were building machines that our friends would operate, not some faceless individuals unknown to us."

In 1972, Gavin became the president of the Grumman Corporation before going on to be its chief operating officer and director. During his 39-year career, Gavin oversaw enterprises as diverse as city buses and wings for the space shuttle. But it was his shepherding of the lunar module's development, considered by many to have been the most challenging aspect of the moon voyage, which elevated him to prominence.

Carl Mueller, a fellow member of MIT's class of 1941 spoke of Gavin as, "a modest, gentle man whose powerful intellect and effective leadership have literally put men on the moon and returned them safely to Earth."

After retiring in 1985, Gavin advised the federal government on energy policy and space matters and pursued charitable interests.

He continued his other passion of downhill skiing until the age of 86.

Gavin received the Nasa Distinguished Public Medal in 1971 for his role in the Apollo 13 crisis and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1974. He was also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He was a life member emeritus of the MIT Corporation.

Joseph G. Gavin Jr. engineer: born Somerville, Massachusetts 18 September 1920; married 1943 Dorothy Grace Dunklee (two sons; one daughter, deceased); died Amherst, Massachussetts 30 October 2010.

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