Monday, July 20, 2009

Grumman Canoes, UPS Trucks, Jet Fighters, and Lunar Excursion Modules


There's something about the name Grumman that is unusual, and memorable. In the early 90s, Northrop bought Grumman Aerospace, makers of such things as the Lunar Excursion Module, the fifth of which landed on the moon 40 years ago today. This space canoe bears a striking resemblance to the UPS truck and the Grumman canoes that we still see all over North America. Aluminum- lots of it - formed, pressed, pierced, seam welded and riveted into shape - very much the same techniques used to put the LM together. But the Lunar Excursion Modules were primarily made by hand - like all spacecraft. Here is a link to details about How the LEM was made.

You don't hear that much about concerns with the LM or "LEM", probably because it performed nearly perfectly and was generally trouble-free in flight. In the film "Apollo 13" the LEM is pressed into service as a lifeboat after things go very wrong in the command vehicle. It was a piece of hardware designed to support human life and land and take off from a body with 1/6th the gravity of Earth, and dock with another spacecraft in orbit around the moon. There was a lot to doing that, and it had never been done before. The rigid but super light structure of thin aluminum made of chemically-milled aluminum panels and fitted with both descent and ascent engines, the former still sitting on the moon, and capable of maintaining pressure, fuel cells, control systems and life support systems was an incredible engineering and manufacturing feat.


Large companies such as Northrop Grumman and their spawn make use of core competencies in manufacturing; Know-how and techniques built up over decades, and with a culture surrounding the way they do it. A subculture in many technical fields is comprised of the radio hams, and here Grumman is no exception. A shout out to Tom Kelly (d) who headed the LM engineering program and put together this memorable book.

Apparently, Grumman's team didn't think all of NASA's engineers were so great, because there were a lot of technical disputes regarding the LM. Grumman was and perhaps still is known as having a bit of a superior attitude with respect to its aircraft. Even the name "LM" (Grumman's) vs NASA's "LEM", remains unresolved.

When you see that UPS truck, or the US Mail truck today, look very closely, and you will see echoes of the LM.

And on that note, it's break time here at work, If you are a newly arrived employee, chances are you will ask where the rest room is.

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