Thomas J. Kelly

Father of the Lunar Module
June 14, 1929 - March 23, 2002

"My only regret is that I wasn't able to go to the moon myself. I would have loved to go. It was a great adventure."

Thomas J. Kelly, Mepham Class of 1946, husband of Joan Tantum Kelly '48, father of 4 sons and a daughter, grandfather of 10, died of pulmonary fibrosis March 23, 2002. But there's much more to the story.

Jolly Rogers Tom Kelly will be remembered by the Class of 1946 for his genial nature, his impish smile, playing the trumpet in the Jolly Rogers Band (photo left, on the top right), and his ability to "ace" all his tests. Tom Kelly will be remembered by historians as the "Father of the Lunar Module".

After graduating (valedictorian) from Mepham, he went to Cornell with a full Grumman engineering scholarship and worked there summers. He joined their ranks as a propulsion engineer and stayed until his retirement in 1992, leaving only to serve in the Air Force where he performed the same job at Wright-Patterson AFB (1956 to 1958) and as a space propulsion engineer for Lockheed's missiles and space division ('58 and '59).

Moon Lander Returning to Grumman, he quickly began studying ways to get people to the moon. In his book Moon Lander, published by Smithsonian Institution Press (2001), he writes with fascinating detail about the process, its failures and successes, and vivid descriptions of the vast variety of people involved. It is a wonderful read, where one will discover that Tom retained his wit, charm, and amazing memory for facts. Buy it or borrow it, but READ it.

Tom will be remembered not only for putting the first man on the moon, but also for the part his team played as trouble shooters who got the Apollo 13 crew safely home. At Grumman he was in charge of more than 7,000 employees in designing and building the gangly-looking module that beat all the other competition for the task and, ultimately, proved to be so successful.

Newsday picture When Tom died, there were articles and editorials from all over the country. He lived to know much of the acclaim that was his due. Now open to the public in Garden City is the Cradle of Aviation Museum, which features a module on display. Tom was involved with discussions on that. In 1972 he received the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Distiguished Public Service Medal for his Apollo work and in 1991 was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. While he knew he had been nominated for the Spirit of St. Louis award from the ASME International, he did not live to know he was selected. Joan will accept it for him this November. In a 2001 Newsday poll on Long Islander of the Century in the category For Aviation, Tom came in third, after Leroy Grumman and Charles Lindbergh. In its 2000 Long Island: Our Past poll asked the favorite person from LI's history. After Robert Moses, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Levitt, Tom tied for fourth with Charles Lindbergh. Not bad company for Tom's place in history!

With all his success in his career, it must be added that he was much beloved by family and friends. A warm and loving companion to Joan, a loving, guiding, and playful father to his children, a cherished friend to many. Even as the toll of pulmonary fibrosis was taking its toll, he retained his sweet nature. As his children experienced: he taught them how to live with integrity and, ultimately, how to die with dignity.

Tom never forgot his roots on Long Island and his fond memories of Mepham. He was honored with Mepham's Who's Who Award in 1964 for Aeronautical Engineering. He was proud of Mepham, and we are justly proud of him!

Clare Eastwood Worthing '46

Excerpts from The New York Times obituary, March 27, 2002

Thomas J Kelly, 72, Dies; Father of Lunar Module

By Warren E. Leary

Thomas J. Kelly, the engineer who led the team that designed and built the spacecraft that landed Apollo astronauts on the Moon, died on Saturday at his home in Cutchogue, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 72.

Mr. Kellyís work earned him the designation "father of the lunar module" from NASA.

When President John F. Kennedy charged the nation to land astronauts on the Moon before the end of the l960ís, Mr. Kelly rallied a team of engineers at what was then the Grumman Aircraft Corporation of Bethpage, N.Y., to build a vehicle to take a crew to the Moon and let them blast off again for the journey back to Earth.

Kelly at National Academy of Engineering Mr. Kelly helped develop the lunar orbit rendezvous concept that made the Moon landings possible with the rocket power available at the time. The Grumman team came up with the idea of a two-stage spacecraft that would take two astronauts to the Moonís surface while a third crew member stayed in orbit around the Moon in the command module, which would eventually take the crew back to Earth.

The effort culminated in a Lunar Excursion Module, or LEM, designated Eagle, which landed Apollo 11ís Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. on the Moon on July 20, 1969. After a brief exploration of "Tranquility Base," the astronauts rocketed back to the orbiting command module in the upper part of the LEM, leaving behind the base, which served as a launching pad.

"Nobody at Grumman who worked on the lunar module will ever forget it," said Mr. Kelly - who spent most of his career with the company ó in a 1999 interview. "We all knew that we were part of a majestic endeavor, and that we were making history happen."

Joan Tantum Kelly, his wife of 50 years, said that her husband brought the excitement of the Apollo program home. "With Tom on it, I had no doubt that it would all come out fine," she said, "If it was an engineering problem, he would work it out. He would never give up on a problem."

To recount what he called the high-light of his career, Mr. Kelly spent six years writing a book about his experiences. The book, "Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module," was published last May by Smithsonian Institution Press.

Mr. Kelly, who was born in Brooklyn, earned a bachelorís degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell in 1951, and a masterís degree in the same field from Columbia in 1956. In 1970, he received a masterís in industrial management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

After graduating from Cornell, Mr. Kelly joined Grumman as a propulsion engineer and later performed the same job at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base when he was called up for military service. He worked as a space propulsion engineer for Lockheedís missiles and space division in 1958 and 1959, then returned to Grumman and quickly began studying ways to get people to Moon.

In 1972, he received the National Aeronautics and Space Administrationís Distinguished Public Service Medal for his Apollo work and in 1991 was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

Mr. Kelly retired from Grumman in 1992, after 38 years with the company, which later merged with Northrop to form the Northrop Grumman Corporation and dispersed its operations from Long Island.