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Title    : Father of the Lunar Module
Author : Tom Kelly:
Date    :


CUTCHOGUE, N.Y. (July 14) - Tom Kelly is often called the father of the lunar module that, 30 years ago, put men on the moon. But as the retired engineer tells it, he was more cheerleader. He shies from credit, preferring the collective ''we,'' as in: ''We gave the 20th century one of the few really good things that happened.''And: ''We all knew that that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.''And: ''We were in the right place at the right time.''
The place was Grumman Aerospace Corp. in Bethpage, N.Y., a defense contractor where Kelly, now 70, once supervised nearly 3,000 engineers. There, some 7,000 people in all created machines that linked man and moon. Their task began late in 1962, with a $2 billion government contract. It ended in 1971, a dozen hand-built modules later.
Though self-effacing as the ''step-by-step plodder type,'' he believed in teamwork. Ross Fleisig, 77, of Garden City, N.Y., led one of Kelly's teams as an aeronautical engineer. He recalls a cajoling leader who could ''get people to do more than they thought they could do.''

Since Kelly retired four years ago, he has written a memoir, ''To the Moon - an Engineer's Adventure.''

His story starts in Merrick, Long Island, where he grew up in a lower-middle class family. Even in high school, engineering fascinated him, and he graduated as valedictorian with a four-year Grumman scholarship to study at Cornell University. His prize included summer jobs with the company.
It wasn't masters degrees from Columbia University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology or a tour in the Air Force that turned Kelly's eyes to the heavens. It was the Russians, who launched Sputnik, the first space satellite, in 1957, and later prompted President John F. Kennedy's pledge to place ''man on the moon'' before the end of the 1960s.

At 30, working at Grumman, Kelly developed plans for an orbiting observatory, precursor of the Hubble Space Telescope. Then, early in 1960, he was asked to take a look at a moon program touted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the young space agency. He did, first with one, then 10, then 30 engineers. ''This idea kept gaining momentum.''

Seeking government contracts was a gamble. ''This was all just a 'What if?''' Yet it came: 15 flight vehicles, 10 test articles, 2 simulators, other small pieces. Eventually, six completed space missions. A seventh - jettisoned and burning in Earth's atmosphere - saved astronauts aboard the Apollo 13 mission.

The lunar project dominated Kelly's life for eight years, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. His wife, Joan, a scholar of English literature, understood. ''It was the most exciting job of the century,'' she says. ''What an adventure! ... He was doing something wonderful.''

And he and colleagues did it very publicly. ''If anything went wrong,'' he muses, ''the whole world would know about it before we did!''

And here's how they worked: ''We had to make it up as we went along.''
The spiderlike module couldn't weigh too much, only 16 tons. (It didn't need to, with the moon's weaker gravity.) It was not aerodynamically sleek, at 29 feet across, from footpad to footpad, and just about as tall. But it was delicate, in places no thicker than four layers of aluminum foil, with wiring easily snapped. Crushable aluminum honeycomb filled its spindly legs.

The success of the module lay in backup systems, all tested and re-tested with Kelly's crew wrestling with hypothetical problems and investigating all mishaps. Of 14,000 reported failures, only 22 were never explained.
''That's how hard we tried it,'' Kelly says. ''That's what made it work.''

Kelly supervised creation of the modules, from his designs and others. At one point, in what he calls ''a kind of ironic revenge,'' he also supervised their construction.

For the moon landing, Kelly's teams built not one, but, in essence, two machines. The bottom, or descent stage, with the spidery legs, got the men to the lunar surface and provided safe harbor while they walked, conducted experiments and collected rocks. The top part, or ascent stage, featured a small rocket ship that ferried two astronauts back to the orbiting command module.

For most Earthlings, the lunar module proved successful on July 20, 1969, as astronaut Neil Armstrong took the first gleeful step on the moon. Not so for Kelly: ''The high point for me was when they were home, safe.''
Then came more work, with more modifications. No two modules were alike. The last three, for instance, weighed two tons more. As rockets became more efficient, lunar modules could carry more equipment and extend each moon visit with more air and power.

Today, visitors to Bethpage, 30 miles east of New York, can see what remains
of Grumman's and Kelly's moon endeavor - a massive three-story, sand-brick office building; a huge four-story, red-brick hangar.
No markers tell that history happened here. Grass and weeds fill cracks in the concrete parking lot.

Grumman has since merged with Northrop, and company headquarters are in California. The Bethpage facility has been reduced to 2,500 workers designing and developing military planes.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary, Kelly plans to attend a fund-raiser for the Cradle of Aviation Museum at Mitchell Field, a former Air Force base in Uniondale.

At his home on the eastern end of Long Island, his big black telescope points past wide picture windows fronting a calm bay. Sometimes he aims it toward the moon, where six Apollo modules rest.

The Kellys have six grown children and 10 grandchildren. Grandpa likes to tease with his telescope. ''Can't you guys see them?'' he asks the youngsters, slate-blue eyes twinkling as they gather to peer at what Tom Kelly put on the moon.





� Layout Copyright 1998 Adam Finzel - Articles are copyright of the authors