Aged 90 years old, John Gavin Jr passed away on Saturday from acute leukemia and pneumonia. He played an instrumental role in the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, leading the 7,500-strong team which created the Eagle lunar module.
The cause was acute leukemia and pneumonia, his family said.
When President John F. Kennedydeclared in 1961 that America would go to the moon by the end of the decade, the task seemed almost unbelievably daunting. But tens of thousands across America pitched in, and Mr. Gavin had one of the most important roles, as part of the Apollo 11 mission.
An M.I.T.-trained engineer who had worked on early jet aircraft engines during World War II, Mr. Gavin managed the 7,500-member team that made the Eagle, the clunky lunar module that settled on the lunar surface, in a spot called the Sea of Tranquillity, on July 20, 1969.
“Houston, Tranquillity Base here,” Neil A. Armstrong, the Apollo 11 commander, announced to mission control as half a billion people watched on television. “The Eagle has landed.”
As director of the lunar module program for the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, Mr. Gavin had to make sure that the craft — a combination two-stage rocket and two-man spacecraft weighing 32,000 pounds — would land gently on the moon’s surface, then take off again on its own power to rejoin a larger spacecraft in lunar orbit.
The odd, bulbous module with spindly legs was called the world’s first true spacecraft because it could operate only in outer space.
The margins for error were so tiny that Commander Armstrong had only 20 seconds of fuel left after changing landing sites because of rocks. Mr. Gavin was “literally” holding his breath, he recalled.
An even more tense moment followed. If the blastoff from the moon’s surface failed — a critical step that could not be simulated in terrestrial tests — Commander Armstrong and Col. Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin Jr., the lunar module pilot, would be stranded forever. (The third member of the mission, Lt. Col. Michael Collins, was orbiting the moon in the command module Columbia.)
Everything worked, a happy occurrence that would be repeated with modules in six more missions. In all, Grumman built a dozen.
A memorable feat performed by the module came in April 1970, when it acted as a lifeboat after an oxygen tank exploded aboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft. The mission’s three astronauts returned to earth inside the module. All the while, Mr. Gavin and others were at mission control in Houston helping to guide the men to safety. NASA awarded Mr. Gavin its distinguished public service medal for his role in the crisis.