Thomas J Kelly (1929-2002) is, one imagines, a name not known to most of us, yet he is, based on that supposition, one of the 20th century’s greatest unsung heroes.
Kelly worked for Grumman Aerospace, a Long Island-based company that took on the single greatest challenge in engineering history: the construction of the lunar excursion model that would make Neil Armstrong an icon.
He led a team of 7,500 Grumann employees whose pioneering efforts allowed man to realise the dream of walking on another surface, a quarter of a million miles from home.
Yet, unless you’re an engineering buff, his name probably doesn’t register in the way that, sadly, reality TV ‘stars’ do. But were it not for Tom Kelly and his colleagues, that “giant leap for mankind” would never have been uttered over 40 years ago.
Back here on this nugget of earth we call home, we’ve got a city, a county and a region full of people who go about their community business without pomp or circumstance.
Yet without their input, without their giving the most precious commodity of all – time – towards a common, positively-minded purpose, many of the things we cherish most simply would not materialise.
Such fine folk populate groups and committees that help to provide our localities with their own individual identity, creating something which is unique to that one, particular place.
Like the men and women on the Grumman factory floor, we’d miss out on so much were it not for such local labour.
Take my native Portlaw for example, where, this week, the town’s Musical Society stages its 30th anniversary pantomime at the Premier Hall (from Wednesday to Sunday).
To keep any show on the road, be it professional or otherwise, requires many vital and necessary components.
The lunar module designed by Tom Kelly weighed 33,000 pounds. It was a two-stage vehicle – designed not only to land astronauts safely on the Moon but to successfully propel them off it and back into lunar orbit before heading for home.
Inside the craft, amidst the many displays and read-outs were no less than 158 switches, four hand controllers, 16 variable controls and two computer keyboards. Each switch had a specific function, as did every screw, rivet and wire used in the craft’s assembly.
Take any production, none of which compare to the enormity of a lunar mission of course, but one can’t avoid some of the similar processes, all of which make the bigger picture a reality.
Firstly, you need a dedicated team at the top to (a) keep the mission on target and (b) ensure the mission (i.e. the production) is delivered on schedule.
For 30 years, the Musical Society’s committee have achieved that very feat in Portlaw, ensuring that the pantomime has remained of the Tannery Town’s yearly constants.
Secondly, you need to have boys, girls, men and women willing to sing, dance and, from time to time, make complete idiots of themselves in front of their nearest and dearest – and not always intentionally!
Thankfully, Portlaw has never struggled in that department with many who began life on the stage in their ‘teeny tot’ years still treading the local boards as adults.
Thirdly, you need a whole host of people willing to do all the ‘unsexy’ stuff that comes with putting on any show, just as NASA needed someone to seam the spacesuit’s 22 layers.
You need someone to source the costumes. You need someone to do the make-up. You need someone to erect the lighting rig. You need someone to wire up all the actors with microphones, perform sound checks and operate the desk at the back of the theatre.
You need someone to assemble the programme. You need someone to take phone bookings for ticket sales. You need someone to sell the raffle tickets.
And on it goes: painting the stage flats and backdrops, sourcing props, providing additional dressing room space, making the tea and sandwiches for cast and crew during the interval. It’s one hell of a list.
History records that it took the ingenuity of 400,000 people to put man on the moon, which surely makes it the greatest collective achievement of all time.
What began as an idea floated by four men in the Tannery in October 1980 has, over the past 30 years, led to thousands of voluntary hours spent in pursuit of one goal: entertainment.
And in pursuit of that aim, thanks to a whole host of men and women, some no longer with us; Portlaw Musical Society have continuously shot for the stars. Keep hitting that target, everybody!