It was one of the great moments in modern history and a crowning achievement for the American space program in its competition with the Soviet Union. While most Americans can recite the names of Armstrong and other astronauts associated with the lunar missions, almost no one knows about the Irish American engineer who made it all possible.
Thomas J. Kelly was born in Brooklyn in 1930 and raised in Merrick on Long Island. In high school, he proved an outstanding student in science and won a prestigious Grumman scholarship to attend Cornell University.
Fittingly, he went on to work for Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation after graduation in 1951. Over the next decade he worked as a propulsion engineer, earned an M.S. in engineering from Columbia University and served in the Air Force from 1956-58.
In 1960, well before President John F. Kennedy issued his bold challenge to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, Kelly was named to head a study group at Grumman charged with developing proposals for a lunar mission. Two other Irish Americans also played key roles in this phase: Program Director Joseph G. Gavin, Jr. and Program Manager Robert S. Mullaney. Grumman faced intense competition from other aerospace companies, but managed to distinguish itself by developing an advanced model for the most challenging aspect of a proposed lunar mission: the lunar-orbit rendezvous, or simply how to get two astronauts from the orbiting Apollo spacecraft down to the surface of the moon and back again. By late 1962, Kelly and his team had so impressed NASA that they were awarded a $385 million contract to design and build the “lunar module,” or LEM for short.
As Kelly later admitted in his memoir, “Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module” (2001), the team at Grumman had only the vaguest idea of what NASA ultimately wanted. To get the desired result, a lunar module light enough to accompany the main Apollo craft and capable of landing on and taking off from the moon’s surface, Kelly and his team worked six to seven days a week, often 12 hours or more per day, for years. The end result was, in the words of one historian of the space program, a craft that looked “more like a giant mechanical spider that a spaceship.”
Nonetheless, all that mattered was performance.
The day of reckoning came on July 20, 1969, four days after Apollo 11 had lifted off. On board were Edward “Buzz” Aldrin and two Irish Americans, Neil Armstrong (Ulster heritage) and Michael Collins. As the main Apollo command module, named Columbia, orbited the moon, the lunar module, named Eagle, separated and cruised toward the moon.
“Eagle has wings,” Armstrong radioed to Houston where Kelly and hundreds of engineers and technicians watched and waited in anxious anticipation.
Soon a crisis arose. The computer-guided navigation system was aiming Eagle to land in a rocky crater, conditions that might destroy the craft. Armstrong switched off the autopilot and steered Eagle past the crater. A few more minutes of tension ensued as he looked for a suitable landing area while his partner, Buzz Aldrin, warned that they were almost out of fuel.
At 4:18 pm EDT Armstrong relayed the words everyone hoped to hear: “Houston. Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.”
While Mission Control in Houston erupted in cheers, Kelly and his team scrambled to handle another crisis — a clogged fuel line that threatened to cause an explosion. Fortunately the clog melted and the danger passed.
“Only then,” Kelly remembered, “were we able to relax and realize: we really made it to the moon.”
At 10:56 p.m., Neil Armstrong descended Eagle’s ladder, uttered his famous lines, and stepped into history. Nineteen minutes later, Aldrin joined him on the moon’s surface. The third member of the crew, Michael Collins, remained in Columbia orbiting the moon and listening to his comrades by radio.
The final hold-your-breath moment for Kelly came when it was time for the Eagle to blast off and return to the Columbia command module. The Eagle was equipped with a single, 172-pound engine. Grumman had tested it successfully more than 3,000 times but Kelly knew that if it failed Armstrong and Aldrin were doomed.
“It either goes or it doesn’t,” he recalled thinking. “Fortunately, it went.” Eagle lifted off and reunited with Columbia without a hitch. After a 225,000-mile journey back to Earth they splashed down in the Pacific on July 24. Mission accomplished.
Kelly remained active in the space program for many years after Apollo 11, refining and improving the lunar module for subsequent missions. Apollo 12 went so well that he decided he didn’t need to be in Houston for Apollo 13. He was studying for his second masters degree (this one from MIT) on April 13, 1970 when he received an urgent phone call from Houston. An explosion in one of its oxygen tanks had crippled the Apollo about 205,000 from Earth. Kelly flew from Cambridge to Grumman headquarters at Bethpage, NY and set up an emergency command center.
Apollo 13’s crew took refuge in Kelly’s lunar module. The big challenge facing Kelly and his team was developing ways for the crew to conserve precious amounts of water, oxygen, and electricity. This involved jerry-rigging some equipment and shutting down as many systems as possible without jeopardizing the lives of the three crewmen. There were many tense moments but Apollo 13 returned safely and splashed down on April 17.
“Apollo 13 was the finest hour for the LEM,” Kelly said in an interview many years later. “We were the lifeboat that rescued the crew.”
Over the next 20 years Kelly won many awards for his contributions to the space program, including NASA’s Distinguished Public Servant Medal in 1973 and posthumously, The American Society of Engineers Spirit of St. Louis Medal in 2002. He retired from Grumman in 1992 and died ten years later at the age of 72.
Sources: Thomas J. Kelly, Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module (2001) and Andrew Chaikin, A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts (1994). Learn more at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
July 24, 1997: Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, one of the court’s most liberal voices, dies.
July 26, 1914: Erskine Childers’ ship arrives with 900 German rifles to arm the Irish Volunteers, a response to an earlier (and far larger) smuggling operation that armed the opponents of Home Rule, the Ulster Volunteers.
July 25, 1894: Three-time Academy Award winner, Walter Brennan, is born in Lynn, MA.
July 26, 1856: Playwright and essayist George Bernard Shaw, is born in Dublin.