LEM Team HeadJoseph Gavin

An aeronautical engineer, Gavin served as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy, and then joined Grumman Aerospace in 1946. He rose rapidly in the company, and in the 1960s was put in charge of the company’s space exploration efforts. Grumman was responsible for the Apollo program’s “LEM” — or Lunar Excursion Module — and in turn Gavin oversaw the design, production and testing of the 15 LEMs that were built. Six took astronauts to the moon and back. A seventh helped the Apollo 13 crew survive an in-space catastrophe that prevented their moon landing. Gavin spent four days without sleep, successfully helping to brainstorm ways to use LM-7’s resources to keep the three astronauts alive long enough to get back to Earth. Gavin was awarded NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal in 1971 for his work. “Those who knew Joe knew he never sought to be in the limelight, though, as head of our space program, he should have been,” said Patricia McMahon of (now) Northrop-Grumman. “He was one of the great pioneers in the aerospace industry.” Gavin was president of the company from 1972 until his retirement in 1985, and he “championed the need to continue humankind’s exploration of space until the end of his life,” McMahon said. He died October 31 at his home in Massachusetts, at 90, from leukemia.

My favorite photo of a LEM — in the background. That’s Apollo 12’s landing module Intrepid, which was landed (on purpose) just 600 feet away from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Surveyor 3 lander — close enough that Allan Bean and Pete Conrad could just stroll over for inspection. Here, Conrad checks out the camera: it (and the soil sampling scoop to his right) were removed and returned to Earth. Surveyor 3 landed in April 1967, Intrepid in November 1969. This photo is on display at JPL, along with the actual scoop. I often took visitors to see this when I still worked at JPL. Photo courtesy NASA.

From This is True for 7 November 2010