This is a story about a man who helped build a spaceship that actually went somewhere.
Unlike today's humdrum but dangerous Shuttle missions to the International Space Station, NASA's Apollo program, launched under President Kennedy in 1961, sought to transport Americans to the Moon amid the intense rivalry of the Cold War. Sam Avati helped oversee construction of a critical piece of that program--the most ungainly but reliable manned spacecraft ever, the Apollo Moon lander, aka the Lunar Module (LM).
Avati, 76, worked for 35 years at Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp. of Bethpage, N.Y. (now a unit of Northrop Grumman Corp.), prime contractor for the LM. Talk about good timing: A coal miner's son from the hills of western Pennsylvania, Avati got his engineering education in the Air Force in the early 1950s. He spent part of his Air Force hitch in Florida, He spent part of his Air Force hitch in Florida, a connection that would serve him well a decade later. It was then, during the darkest days of LM construction, that Avati returned to Cape Canaveral to troubleshoot problems that threatened the success of the first lunar module.
|Grumman's Lunar Module was the first spaceship ever designed to fly to another world. LM-5, dubbed "Eagle," prepares to descend to the Sea of Tranquility.|
In 1955, Avati applied for a job at Grumman headquarters during a visit to Long Island to attend a wedding, and subsequently spent his entire career at the aerospace company, building airplanes, fighter jets and the Moon lander. Along the way he married and raised three children with his wife of 51 years, Joanne.
By the time he retired from Grumman, Sam had risen through the ranks from LM manufacturing manager at the Kennedy Space Center to deputy general manager for product development.
Avati bent a lot of metal during the height of the Cold War, including work on the F-14 fighter built by Grumman for the U.S. Navy. But it was the Moon lander that defined his career, perfected his skills as a resourceful, dogged manufacturing engineer and taught him how to help manage one of the highest-profile engineering projects in the history of human exploration.
There were plenty of 3 a.m. phone calls from Cape Canaveral to deal with along the way--along with bureaucracy and egos. One of the moon walkers was especially hard on LM instrumentation and controls. "He was a real pain in the ass," Avati recalled, quickly adding that the mentality of that test pilot, the mythic "right stuff," was precisely what was needed to land the LM on the Moon.
Fast forward to Sunday, July 20, 1969, as Avati and his Grumman colleagues held their collective breath upon hearing Houston's mission control tell Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong, "30 seconds" of fuel remaining ("Land that thing!" Avati remembers thinking). Finally, humankind, a U.S. government bent on beating the Soviets to the moon, Grumman and its manufacturing team led by Samuel C. Avati, the coal miner's son, met President John F. Kennedy's deadline to land humans on the moon by the decade's end.
Nothing since has topped the exploits of the Apollo engineers. And it was Grumman's LM team that safely transported the Apollo astronauts those last few miles to the lunar surface and back to their mothership, having built each of the 14 LMs, the only spacecraft ever designed to travel to another world, by hand.