Born on June 14, 1929, in Brooklyn, Kelly was raised in Merrick on Long Island, NY. He became fascinated with engineering in high school and attended Cornell University on a Grumman engineering scholarship. He graduated in 1951 with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and an ROTC commission in the Air Force Reserve. Five years later, he would receive his Master of Science in the same field from Columbia University.
Kelly started working for Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation immediately after college until he was called to active duty in 1956. From 1956 to 1958, he worked as a Performance Engineer on several aircraft and missile programs at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Rejoining Grumman in 1959, he worked there until his retirement in 1992.
In the early 1960s, he was part of the team that successfully bid for the $2 billion lunar landing vehicle project from NASA. He subsequently led the team that designed and built the Lunar Module at Grumman. Used on all the Apollo lunar landing missions from 1969 to 1972, the Lunar Module was the only manned craft to ever land on the Moon. Never designed to operate in Earth’s atmosphere, the Lunar Module didn’t need to have any aerodynamic qualities whatsoever. Its shape and form were perfectly functional, which made for a very oddly shaped vehicle.
Thomas Kelly served as the Deputy Director of the Space Shuttle program, Director of Space Programs, VP of Engineering and President of Space Station Integration Division before his retirement in 1992. His last work for NASA was as a member of its Advisory Panel on Space Vehicles. After his retirement, Kelly wrote a book about his Apollo experiences, Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module. Thomas Kelly died of pulmonary fibrosis on March 23, 2002, at his home in Cutchogue, New York.