A man threw a rubber ball against a brick wall at a factory in New York state, day after day, week after week, year after year. This factory worker would prove to be one of the most important people in the United States Space Program. His name was Thomas J. Kelly.
Years ago Rob and I watched the television series "From the Earth to the Moon" by Tom Hanks. We have watched it several times since then and still learn details we did not know before about the moon race between the Soviets and the Americans. Tom Hanks and his writers do an excellent job of tracing the history of the program starting with President John F. Kennedy's declaration in 1961 that the Americans would put a man on the moon, culminating with Apollo 11's successful lunar landing in 1969 and finishing with the anti-climactic final Apollo mission in 1972.
Back in New York State, Tom Kelly and the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Company were selected to build a lunar module that would enable the astronauts to rendezvous on the moon. Not only did Mr. Kelly have the awesome task of making this happen, but he had limited time to do it. Episode 5 of From the Earth to the Moon, "Spider", describes how the lunar module came into being. Tom Kelly had many obstacles in his way. First they had to find someone with a logical plan to make a lunar orbit rendezvous possible. They interviewed several scientists, but most of their ideas were rejected, including the theory that they later chose.
Once Tom and his team found a workable idea, they had to design and build a lunar excursion module or LEM. Each 12-hour plus day was filled with building, broken up by Tom's short breaks where he would throw his rubber ball against the brick wall outside to help relieve his frustrations. At one point, they discovered an error and one of the workers confessed that it was his mistake. Rather than firing him, Tom commended him for coming forward, explaining that if he had said nothing, the problem would have been expounded. Once he started to see the finished product, he experienced more satisfaction. However, the time constraint was always on his mind.
In the meantime, the astronauts experienced their own trials and tribulations. They were training to orbit the moon in Apollo 1 when tragedy struck: a fire broke out in the capsule and all three astronauts died. Apollo missions 2 to 7 were successful, but they did not land on the moon as they did not yet have the lunar module built. Apollo 8, captained by Jim Lovell, orbitted the moon. Apollo 9 and 10 were also successful.
By 1969, Tom Kelly and his team were putting the finishing touches on the lunar module and testing it for space. Like a proud Papa watching his baby take his first steps, Tom had to relinquish control and hand over the LEM to the astronauts.
And what a mission it was. The Apollo 11 moon landing of course was the mission that the world watched on their black and white televisions. Captain Neil Armstrong stepped down on the rocky surface and proclaimed "One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind." The world saw Buzz Aldrin follow Armstrong down the ladder and set his foot in the dust.
No one saw Tom Kelly. He is the behind the scenes guy without whom the program wouldn't have got off the ground. Yes, Mr. Kelly had to juggle a lot of balls to make the moon landing happen. And most of them landed on the roof of the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Company. But he had the privilege of seeing his baby land on the moon.
Photo courtesy http://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov