Joe Mulé

May 17, 2010
Vita and Joe Mulé sit on the front porch of their home in The Glade near Rehoboth Beach. The couple met in Brooklyn; they have been married for more than 50 years. NONE RON MACARTHUR PHOTO

On most days Joe Mulé’s most perplexing task is trying to figure out how to break 100 consistently on the golf course. There was a time, however, when all of Mule’s skills and education were put to the test as the leader of a team of the brightest and best, a team that developed and built the Apollo lunar module.

Mulé is 14th winner of prestigious award
The National Marconi Science Award is named after Guglielmo Marconi, the genius credited with beginning the communications revolution.

His discovery of long wave, short wave and microwave transmissions ushered in the modern era of communications.

The award was established in 1995 by the Italian-American organization Unity, Neighborliness, Integrity, Charity and Opportunity (UNICO) to recognize scientists who exemplify Marconi’s scientific and creative accomplishments through their own lives and career achievements.

Nominated by the Rehoboth Beach UNICO Chapter, Joe Mulé of Rehoboth Beach is the 14th winner of the prestigious award. The award was presented March 20 during a banquet in Nashville, Tenn.

He talks about landing on the moon like there was nothing to it. Tanned and comfortable in his home in The Glade in Rehoboth Beach, Mulé reflects back on a time in history when the race to the moon was a national obsession.

Some doubted President John F. Kennedy’s commitment that the United States would be on the moon by the end of the 1960s, but not Mulé. “I knew we were going to the moon,” he said.

Mulé, who recently received the prestigious National Marconi Science Award for his lifetime of engineering and scientific achievement, was a key engineer in the development of the lunar landing module. On the cutting edge of the space race, Mulé headed a team of 120 Grumman Aerospace Corp. engineers responsible for design and development of the Apollo lunar module.

As manager of reliability engineering, his task was to make sure components were tested and retested to determine any possible failures and then to build in redundancies for all systems. “Our goal was to reach a probability of mission success of 98.4 percent, while crew safety was set at 99.95 percent,” he said.

Astronauts were also trained to deal with any possible failures while in space so they could take action to continue or abort a mission.

The systems were checked under vibration, temperature extremes and even in a vacuum. “We got as close as we could to real space,” Mulé said.

He said his team was the best of the best in the engineering world.

When problems were identified, Mulé’s team took corrective action on the lunar module’s assembly line and on the launch pad.

Mulé said weight was a critical factor in every decision about the 32,000-pound lunar module. It was designed to take two members of the crew to the moon’s surface and provide a launching pad of sorts for them to return to the command and service modules.

The lunar and service modules were jettisoned during return to the Earth.

All of their highly technical work was done without the benefit of GPS or today’s computers.

“Grumman engineers and NASA became a brotherhood dedicated to accomplishing a mission that we knew was being watched by the whole world,” he said.

He worked for Grumman on Long Island for 22 years. NASA recognized his work presenting him with the Apollo Achievement Award and Grumman Aerospace honored him with the Lunar Module Program of Project Apollo Certificate of Appreciation.

Engineering in his blood

Mulé knew he wanted to be an engineer when he was 13 years old. He joined the working world during the height of the Cold War era when engineers flocked to the Long Island area to work for Grumman, one of the leading defense contractors in the country. As many as 23,000 people were employed doing defense contract work for Grumman in the 1960s.

His father was born in Ribera, in southern Sicily, and his mother was born in the United States of Sicilian parents from Palermo. He and his wife both grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y.

From the beginning, he realized a good education was key to success in life. He graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from City College of New York and a master of science degree in industrial engineering from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn.

Mulé has been married to Vita for 52 years, and the couple has six children and 10 grandchildren. They retired to the area in 1999 to be near friends who had also retired to the Cape Region.

Apollo mission memories

Mulé said he was home with friends and family watching the first lunar landing by Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969. He said, aside from the obvious excitement and pride he felt watching the landing, he also realized something that has almost been lost to history.

Commander Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, didn’t like the terrain of the original planned landing spot, and he moved to another spot, Mulé said.

“They descended to the surface with 11 seconds of fuel left,” he said.

Another Apollo mission also created a bit of excitement – Apollo 13.

Mulé said Grumman never received the credit it deserved for the part it played in finding solutions to the problems experienced by Apollo 13 when an electrical system failure caused an oxygen tank explosion nearly 200,000 miles away in lunar orbit, rendering the service module inoperable.

Without the service module, the three Apollo astronauts had limited electric power and oxygen and no rocket power to return to Earth.

Mulé said Grumman engineers on Long Island worked in tandem with NASA engineers at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, devising the plan to use the lunar module as a lifeboat. Without the lunar module’s power and oxygen supply, the mission would have been a failure, and three astronauts would have perished, Mulé said.

The time the Apollo 13 crew spent on the dark side of the moon, which blocked communication, was the longest few minutes in his crew’s lives, he said.

And, by the way, he said the story surrounding Apollo 13 was overdone in Tom Hanks’ blockbuster movie.

In all, Grumman built 17 lunar modules with six going to the moon, and the final three missions also carried the lunar rover within the lunar module.

Mulé said he keeps in contact with engineers who worked on the lunar module, and they still have a reunion the first week in December.

On July 20, 2007, the 38th anniversary of the first lunar landing, he and four colleagues presented papers called “Lessons Learned” from Project Apollo to directors of the new Orion project during a meeting at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Mulé said the fate of the Orion mission, a return to the moon, is in doubt because of new priorities set by the President Barack O’Bama administration for deep space travel.

Many of us still look up at the moon from time to time and wonder how anyone could have achieved what appears to be an unattainable task.

Mulé and his colleagues got up each morning planning how to get one step closer to achieving that impossible goal until their mission was accomplished.

Now if he can just figure out that putter.

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