Aerospace: Grumman in Orbit

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After years of straining hard, Long Island's Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp. last week broke into the charmed if turbulent circle of major aerospace contractors. Edging such bigger birds as General Dynamics and Boeing, Grumman was awarded NASA's $350 million initial contract to build the lunar "bug" that, it is hoped, will land Apollo astronauts on the moon by 1970. The 12-ton bug, called LEM (for Lunar Excursion Module), will be like nothing ever seen before: 10 ft. wide and 15 ft. high, with a window-dome top and three strutlike "legs" for landing.

The plan is for LEM to be lofted into lunar orbit along with the main Apollo spaceship, then be detached to carry two of the three Apollo spacemen to the moon's surface (TIME cover, Aug. 10). The bug, equipped with its own landing and take-off engines, will rendezvous later with the orbiting mother craft.

Well experienced in building conventional aircraft, Grumman produced 17,000 planes during World War II. With its fighters, notably the Wildcat and Hellcat, it did more than any other planemaker to win the war in the Pacific. Sales climbed to $324 million during 1944, then plummeted to $24 million in 1947 as military demand virtually disappeared. Struggling back, Grumman branched into rescue, transport and company planes, as well as aluminum truck bodies, boats and canoes. By last year, sales were at $317 million and profits $6.1 million.

Since the death in 1960 of longtime President Leon ("Jake") Swirbul, Grumman has been piloted by E. (for Edwin) Clinton Towl, 57, one of the six air-struck men who founded the company in a Long Island garage 33 years ago (among the others: Swirbul and Chairman Leroy Grumman, now 67). Quiet and unassuming, Towl (pronounced Toll) runs less of a one-man show than colorful Jake Swirbul did. When asked to name the big moment in his career, Clint Towl grins. "Tomorrow." With that LEM contract in his pocket, he is undoubtedly right.