Thomas J. Kelly (aerospace engineer)

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Thomas Joseph Kelly
Kelly at National Academy of Engineering
Born (1929-06-14)June 14, 1929
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Died March 23, 2002(2002-03-23) (aged 72)
Cutchogue, New York, U.S.
Cause of death Six-year battle with pulmonary fibrosis
Occupation Aerospace Engineer
  • Joan Tantum Kelly (m. 1952; wid. 2002)
  • David Kelly
  • Thomas Kelly
  • Edward Kelly
  • Christopher Kelly
  • Peter Kelly
  • Jennifer Lachmayr
For other people named Tom Kelly, see Tom Kelly (disambiguation).

Thomas Joseph Kelly (June 14, 1929 – March 23, 2002) was an American aerospace engineer. Kelly primary worked on the Apollo Lunar Module, which earned him the name of "Father of the Lunar Module" from NASA.

Kelly led the team at Grumman that designed and built the Lunar Module (LM2 shown)

Thomas J. Kelly graduated from Cornell University in 1951, where he was a member of the Quill and Dagger society. Kelly obtained his MS degree from Columbia University in 1956 and later completed graduate studies at Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, graduating in 1958.

Kelly was the Project Engineer, Engineering Manager and Deputy Program Manager for Grumman Aircraft's Apollo Lunar Module (1962–1970). His 2001 book Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module documents the process of designing, building and flying the Lunar Module.

Tom Kelly and Owen Maynard (center) in the Spacecraft Analysis Room (SPAN) during the flight of Apollo 11

Kelly was portrayed by Matt Craven in the 1998 miniseries From the Earth to the Moon.

Early Life[edit]

Tomas Joseph Kelly was born on June 14, 1929 in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Merrick, New York. He attended Wellington C. Mepham High School. While attending, Kelly was remembered by his genial nature, impish smile, playing the trumpet, and his ability to "ace" all his tests. He eventually graduated Wellington with valedictorian.

In 1946, Kelly attended Cornell University under a Grumman scholarship. During this time he worked his summers at Grumman, eventually earning himself a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a Reserve Officers' Training Corps commission in 1951.



Kelly started right away working at Grumman as a propulsion engineer working under the Rigel Missile Program from 1951 to 1953. After this project, he was moved to the F-11 Tiger program and was promoted to group leader. While at Grumman, Kelly earned a master's degree from Columbia University in 1956.

Air Force[edit]

In 1956, Kelly was called into active duty and was stationed at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. During his duty, Kelly was a performance engineer on the B-58 Hustler, F-105 Thunderchief, and the AGM-28 Hound Dog. After two years of service, he was discharged in 1958.


For a short time, Kelly worked at Lockheed Corporation on their missile and space division. Kelly was the group leader of the rocket propulsion development engineering. He stayed here till 1959.

Return to Grumman[edit]

Kelly was drawn back to Grumman in which he took up the position of assistant chief in propulsion from 1959-60.

He was then moved to Grumman's Apollo and Lunar Module proposals. During this time Kelly helped develop the lunar orbit rendezvous concept.

In Late 1962, Grumman won the $2-billion government contract from NASA. Kelly was promoted to led the design team for the Lunar Module. He was in charge of more than 7,000 employees in design and building the Lunar Module. Kelly's group came up with the idea of a two-stage spacecraft, that would take two astronauts to the Moon's surface while a third member would stay in orbit.

Kelly had not turned 40 when Neil Armstrong took his first historic step on the Moon in 1969. During the landing, ice had formed in a fuel line and become stuck. If the heat from the engine was moving up toward the frozen fuel, and got hot enough, it could detonate. Luckily for Kelly and the Grumman crew, the problem corrected itself and the crew was able to relax and realize what they just had done. In an interview in 1998 Kelly stated, "It was the greatest thing in my career. And, in hindsight, it was even more significant than we thought at the time."

In all Grumman built fifteen lunar modules, but only six of them had the chance to land on the moon. Each one of these modules had significant upgrades compared to the last one. The Lunar Module is among the most significant accomplishments to Kelly's Career, as it is still the only machine to bring humans to another world.

Shortly after Apollo, Kelly received a Master's in Industrial Management from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1970.


Kelly retired from Grumman in 1992 after spending 38 years with the company. Soon after his retirement, Grumman merged with Northrop to form the Northrop-Grumman and dispensed its operations from Long Island.

In 2000 the Long Island: Our Past poll, Kelly was selected as the fourth favorite person from Long Island's history. He followed behind Robert Moses, Theodore Roosevelt and William Levitt.

External links[edit]