When the world watched with wonder as the United States sent missions to the moon, Bob Botwin, of Bellmore, was behind the scenes, helping each operation go smoothly. Botwin was a propulsion expert, and helped facilitate the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s six journeys into space. He died on Dec. 26, 2019, at 89.
Botwin joined the Grumman Aircraft Propulsion Group for Preliminary and Advanced Design in the late 1950s, where he worked on NASA’s lunar modules as the LM propulsion manager starting in 1965. He oversaw the development of the modules’ ascent, descent and control systems, which helped land 12 astronauts on the moon.
“For his time, he was one of the leading rocket propulsion experts in the country,” said Botwin’s son, Brad.
On top of national achievements, Botwin was also involved in his local community. He was a trustee of the Bellmore Memorial Library for 36 years, retiring in 2017.
Botwin was born in Brooklyn on June 8, 1930. He graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School, and earned an engineering degree from Polytechnic Institute and, later, a master’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania.
He began his career as a thermodynamicist, developing engine technology at several major aerospace companies, including the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. Before joining Grumman, he served in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, based in Frederick, Md.
During each lunar landing, Botwin managed the Grumman team in NASA’s Houston headquarters. Together they monitored LM propulsion systems while working alongside other NASA teams and officials. After each mission, Botwin would conduct an in-person debriefing with each astronaut.
Perhaps most notable of his time at Grumman was the Apollo 13 mission, when astronauts had to abandon their expedition to the moon and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. An explosion caused propulsion systems to fail on the service module, the main craft, leaving the crew to rely on the LM and its descent engine — Botwin’s specialty.
Over four days, the engine was fired several times to course-correct the crew back home. It was a tense fight for survival, but Botwin’s confidence remained high. “It was very matter-of-fact to him,” recalled his son Neil. “It was going to work.”
But despite his important work — and his confidence in it — Botwin remained humble, his sons said. Neil recounted a time when he and his father had an opportunity to meet Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise.
“Did you know him?” Neil had asked his father, who replied by playing down their relationship. Once Haise saw Botwin, however, he said, “Bob, it’s so good to see you,” Neil recalled. “Thank you for saving my life!”
Later, at a separate meeting with Buzz Aldrin — the second man to walk on the moon — Brad Botwin recalled Aldrin saying of his father, “He’s the guy,” hyping his role as the propulsion systems expert. For Botwin, though, “it was always a team effort,” Brad said. “Bob was in charge, but he was one of everybody.”
In his 36 years at Grumman, Botwin’s roles included group head of the Grumman Space Shuttle Propulsion proposal, director of energy systems and director of operations for advanced development, which involved space nuclear propulsion and superconducting magnets for fusion reactors.
As America’s ventures into space dwindled in the 1970s, Botwin was saddened to see the missions end. “‘It’s over,’” Brad recalled his father saying somberly after the final shuttle launch. He advocated for the continuation of space exploration over the years, but the country’s interest in space never reached the same heights. “It’s very sad to see people like my dad pass away,” Brad said. “It’s like starting all over. We lost that momentum.”
In his daily life, “Bob didn’t like boring,” Brad said. The family took yearly trips that Botwin planned as if they were “going to the moon and back.”
“He had a calm logic to everything,” Brad said.
“He even put together a whole diagram for hooking up our TV,” Neil added with a laugh.
In addition to his sons, Botwin is survived by his wife, Shelly Heller Botwin. The two met on a blind date and were married for 64 years. He is also survived by a daughter, Wendy Supron; grandchildren Alexandra, Harrison, Michael, Andrew, Emily, Samuel and Alexander; and a great granddaughter, Sadie. His grandchildren knew him as Pop-Pop, and each has fond memories of the “Camp Botwin” family pool, or of having their rocket scientist grandfather visit their schools for presentations.
Contributions in Botwin’s memory can be made to the Cradle of Aviation Museum, Charles Lindbergh Boulevard, Garden City, N.Y. 11530. Go to www.cradleofaviation.org/support/donate.html or call (516) 572-4066 to donate.