Joseph Gavin dies at 90; former head of aerospace company Grumman

Joseph Gavin, a retired president of the New York aerospace company Grumman who headed its Apollo lunar module program in the 1960s, died Oct. 31 at his home in Amherst, Mass. He was 90.

Gavin’s death was announced in a statement issued by Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp., the defense contractor formed in 1994 when Northrop bought the Long Island-based Grumman. The cause was not given.

Joseph Gavin: The obituary in the Nov. 8 LATExtra section of Joseph Gavin, who headed the Apollo lunar module program at Grumman, said that in 1970 the Apollo 13 astronauts splashed down in the lunar lander module. While the astronauts did spend four days in the lunar lander, they transferred to the command module before returning to Earth. —

Gavin, who was Grumman’s president from 1972 to 1985, “championed the need to continue humankind’s exploration of space until the end of his life,” said Patricia McMahon, vice president of Northrop-Grumman.

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

Grumman manufactured the lunar module (or LM, pronounced “lem”) that first put men on the moon on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin touched down during the Apollo 11 mission. Gavin oversaw the design, production and testing of the spidery lunar landing craft that transported the Apollo program’s astronauts to the moon and back.

“There’s a certain exuberance that comes from being out on the edge of technology, where things are not certain, where there is some risk, and where you make something work,” Gavin told the MIT publication Technology Review in 2009, in reflecting on his career at Grumman.


Joseph Gleason Gavin Jr. was born Sept. 18, 1920, in Somerville, Mass. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, after serving as a Navy fighter pilot, joined Grumman in 1946.

His first assignment with the company was as a design engineer on fighter jets. 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.

Gavin was on hand in Houston on April 13, 1970, when the Apollo 13 spacecraft — then about 205,000 miles from Earth — sustained 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, James A. Lovell and John “Jack” Swigert — 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.

In 1971, NASA awarded Gavin its Distinguished Public Service Medal. He became Grumman’s president in July 1972.

Since his retirement in 1985, Gavin and his wife of 67 years, Dorothy, lived in Amherst.

In addition to his wife, Gavin is survived by two sons and four grandchildren.