Joseph Gavin obituary

Joseph Gavin, who has died aged 90, led the development of the spiderlike Apollo lunar module spacecraft, which enabled six pairs of astronauts to land on the moon between 1969 and 1972. He was also responsible for reprogramming Apollo 13's lunar module, so that it could be used as a lifeboat to rescue the crew following an explosion in their command module 200,000 miles from earth in 1970.

While Nasa's Wernher von Braun was still advocating a gigantic rocket called Nova to send astronauts and a return spacecraft direct to the moon from earth's orbit, Gavin, of the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation at Bethpage, New York, had realised this would take too long and cost too much. He proposed placing the spacecraft in lunar orbit, able to drop and recover a smaller landing craft.

Although Grumman had so far bid for and lost every Nasa contract for Apollo, Gavin continued to employ a team designing such a spacecraft. When von Braun accepted that what was called lunar rendezvous was the best way to achieve the manned landing, Gavin built up his design team to 7,500. The original cost of $350m rose to $1.5bn. "If a project is truly innovative, you cannot possibly know its exact cost at the beginning," he said. "The cost came very much to the disgust of … the bean counters".He pointed out that they were designing a machine that could not be tested before the mission and after landing could not be examined. "It was like doing things blindfolded." Landing on the moon meant being prepared for such things as a layer of dust 30ft deep and a slippery surface like ice.

He and his team studied many varieties of vehicles, trading off systems and propulsion needs to reach an acceptable weight. It had to be light, to reduce energy consumption and battery size. With no air resistance on the moon, reverse acceleration was needed to stop forward progress. It also had to be able to take off again under its own power. "I've often wondered how we could be so lucky that it all worked."

In 10 years of stumbling from one crisis to the next, they dealt with about 14,000 imperfections before settling on the spiderlike craft with four spindly legs. It was a two-stage rocket and a two-man spacecraft combined. Since it stood 25ft high, there had to be a ladder on one of the legs to enable the astronauts to get to and from the surface. Grumman built 13 of the 16-tonne lunar modules. Nine were actually used, two being flown on the Apollo 9 and 10 rehearsal missions.

But Gavin said the tensest moment in his career came in 1970, following the explosion aboard Apollo 13's command module. He and his Grumman engineers worked with Nasa to reprogramme the lunar module to save the crew. They were helped by the fact that Grumman had developed a personal relationship with every one of the Apollo astronauts. "We were building machines that our friends would operate – not some faceless individuals unknown to us."

Apollo 13's lunar module successfully towed the crippled command module and its crew 300,000 miles round the moon and back to safety, after which Gavin's team jokingly submitted a salvage bill of more than $400,000 to the command module's makers, North American Rockwell – a joke not wholly appreciated by the recipients.

Gavin was born in Somerville, Massachusetts, and earned degrees in aeronautical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After serving as a US Navy fighter pilot, he joined Grumman in 1946. His first job was as a design engineer pioneering early electronic systems in naval jets. By 1956 he was chief experimental project engineer, after which he was appointed chief missile and space engineer, overseeing projects as diverse as city buses and wings for the space shuttle. He became president of Grumman in 1972. "Nothing like having a little luck in some of these places."

The astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who accompanied Neil Armstrong on the historic first moon landing in 1969, and was himself an advocate of orbit-to-orbit techniques, described Gavin as quiet and unassuming but very deliberate and astute.

After retiring in 1985 he advised the US federal government on energy policy and space matter. A downhill skier until the age of 86, he said there was a certain exuberance from being out on the edge of technology, where things were uncertain, where there was risk and where you made something work. He received the Nasa distinguished public service medal in 1971 and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1974. He was also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

He is survived by Dorothy, his wife of 67 years, his sons Joseph and Donald, and four grandchildren. A daughter died in 1998.

Joseph Gleason Gavin, space engineer, born 18 September 1920; died 30 October 2010

This article was amended on 23 November 2010. The original stated that Wernher von Braun was backing a rocket called Nerva.

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