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Joseph Gavin '41, SM '42

Grumman head worked to save Apollo 13
February 24, 2009

When Joseph Gavin graduated with a pair of degrees in aeronautical engineering in the early 1940s, America’s space program was still far in the future. Yet MIT prepared Gavin for a storied career on the space frontier. After graduating, he served in the navy during World War II and worked on the first jet-propelled fighter aircraft. Then he joined Grumman, where he remained for his entire career–serving as an aircraft engineer, chief missile and space engineer, and eventually president.

“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 says.

That risk became global news in April 1970, when an explosion onboard Apollo 13 led to emergency efforts by NASA and Grumman engineers–Gavin among them–to reprogram the lunar module and save the crew. “That was the tensest episode in my career,” says Gavin. “The team at Grumman developed a personal relationship with every one of the astronauts in the Apollo era. We were building machines that our friends would operate–not some faceless individuals unknown to us.”

Beyond a successful rescue, Gavin’s efforts earned him the Distinguished Public Service Medal in 1971 from NASA. He is also a fellow of prestigious professional societies such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and the National Academy of Engineering.

Gavin has found time to serve MIT in myriad capacities, such as educational counselor and local alumni leader, and he is a life member emeritus of the MIT Corporation. He and his wife, Dorothy, raised three children and now live in Amherst, MA, where they play what he calls geriatric tennis. He has also been an avid skier for much of his adult life.

“There are probably people who would say I was a workaholic,” he says. “But when I was at Grumman I was doing something I would have preferred to do over anything else. When you’re in that situation, the hours don’t mean much. You do whatever is necessary.”

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