Joe Gavin, the former president of Grumman, poses for a...

Joe Gavin, the former president of Grumman, poses for a portrait in front of a replica of the Grumman Lunar Module LM 13 at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in East Garden City. (July 25, 2009) Credit: Charles Eckert

Joseph Gavin, a retired president of the former Grumman company and one of America's space pioneers, died Sunday at his Amherst, Mass., home, family members said Monday.

Gavin, who was 90, 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 Module - that took astronauts to the surface of the moon from an orbiting spaceship.

Before joining Grumman, Gavin was a Navy fighter pilot.

He 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.

Since his retirement, Gavin and his wife, Dorothy, lived in Amherst.

Gavin was most recently on Long Island last spring, when he attended a celebration of the Apollo space program at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in East Garden City. His son, Joseph Gavin III of Arlington, Va., said funeral arrangements were incomplete Monday.

Patricia McMahon, who heads Northrop Grumman's operations on Long Island, said the company was "deeply saddened" to learn of Gavin's death.

"Those who knew Joe knew he never sought to be in the limelight, though, as head of our space program, he should have been," McMahon said. "He was one of the great pioneers in the aerospace industry.

"Joe was truly a gentleman and a gentle man, recognized for his high ethical and professional standards," McMahon said."

John C. Bierwirth, a retired Grumman chairman and chief executive who worked with Gavin for years, recalled a low-key executive who knew the company backward and forward.

"Everyone seemed to know about Joe's extraordinary role in the Apollo program," Bierwirth said. "But not everybody realized that, in a quiet way, he was an extremely effective president of the whole of Grumman Corporation."

Gavin was born Sept. 18, 1920, in Somerville, Mass., and spoke with a broad New England accent despite decades of living in Huntington. 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 fighter jets. Soft-spoken and unassuming, he rose rapidly and became chief experimental project engineer in 1956. From 1957 to 1962, he 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 that first touched down on the moon on July 20, 1969. 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 W. Haise, who later became a Grumman space executive, John "Jack" Swigert and James A. Lovell - would spend four perilous days in the Grumman lunar lander, eventually making their way safely back to Earth.

The episode was 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.

In addition to his wife and son Joseph, survivors include another son, Donald of Kings Park, and four grandchildren.

Latest Videos

Newsday LogoDON'T MISS THIS LIMITED-TIME OFFER1 5 months for only $1Save on Unlimited Digital Access