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Grumman space pioneer has died

Joseph Gavin

Joseph Gavin Photo Credit: Handout

Joseph Gavin, a retired president of the former Grumman company and one of America’s space pioneers, died Sunday at a hospital outside of Boston, family members said Monday.

Gavin, who was 90, retired from what was then Grumman in 1985, as president of the company that at the time was Long Island’s largest private business. Grumman was acquired in 1994 by Northrop Corp. of Los Angeles and is now known as Northrop Grumman Corp. It employs about 2,000 people on Long Island.

Gavin headed Grumman’s space effort during NASA’s Apollo program in the 1960s. He played key roles in developing Grumman’s lunar landing craft — formally known as the Lunar Excursion Module — that took astronauts to the surface of the moon from an orbiting spaceship.

Before joining Grumman, Gavin was a fighter pilot in the Navy.

Since his retirement, he and his wife, Dorothy, lived in Amherst, Mass. Gavin was most recently on Long Island last spring, when he attended a celebration of the country’s Apollo program at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City.

His son, Joseph Gavin III, confirmed his father’s death. An official at the Cradle said Gavin died Sunday. Funeral arrangements were incomplete Monday.

Gavin was born in Somerville, Mass., on Sept. 18, 1920, and spoke with a broad New England accent despite decades of living on Long Island.

He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and after his Navy service joined Grumman in 1946. His first assignment with the company was as a design engineer on the XF9f-2 Panther aircraft program.

The company had downsized dramatically after World War II and was seeking to become the prime supplier of aircraft to the Navy, the same role it had played during the war.

Gavin, soft-spoken and unassuming, rose rapidly as the company picked up more Navy work. In 1950, he was named project engineer to the F9F Cougar program. Two years later, he was assigned the same title on the F11F-1 Tiger program.

He became chief experimental project engineer in 1956, and from 1957 to 1962 was chief missile and space engineer.

Those jobs led Gavin to play a major role in Grumman’s space effort. In 1962, he was elected a company vice president and handed direction of Grumman’s program to build the spidery lunar landing craft. Gavin was on hand in Houston on April 13, 1970, when the Apollo 13 spacecraft — then about 205,000 miles from Earth — suffered an explosion of its liquid oxygen tank No. 2 in the craft’s service module. The three astronauts aboard — Fred Haise, who later became a Grumman space executive, Jack Swigert and James Lovell — would spend four perilous days in the Grumman lunar lander, making their way back safely to earth.

The episode was later made into a film, “Apollo 13,” starring Tom Hanks as Lovell.

At the time of the accident, Gavin was senior vice president in charge of space activities at Grumman. He spent most of the four days with little sleep before the lander splashed down.

Gavin became president of Grumman in July 1972.

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