Expressway: The flying fifth-grade and the moon landing

In a photo that first ran in Newsday

In a photo that first ran in Newsday on Feb. 27, 1969, Katy Norden, 11, squeezes and breaks the egg she dropped in a protective device from an airplane at 2,000 feet. Norden and her classmates at Norwood School in Port Jefferson Station had built makeshift landing devices to protect the eggs. (Credit: Newsday)

It was early 1969 and Grumman Corp., Long Island's giant defense contractor, was finishing the module that would land astronauts safely on the moon.

Some kids in my fifth-grade class at Norwood School in Port Jefferson Station knew simple details about the project because their parents -- mostly fathers -- worked at Grumman.

After reading a newspaper article about engineering problems for the lunar lander, the class decided to take up the challenge. They would design and create devices that could provide a soft landing. Knowing they couldn't use people as passengers, the vote was to use something delicate -- raw eggs. Each student would build a module containing an "eggstronaut."


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Kids came to school with amazing devices. Some used plastic bags filled with water. One shaped hacksaw blades into a globe, with the egg suspended at the center. There were cardboard tubes and pieces of tires. One device was made of rubber bands, with a "floating" egg inside.

Would they work?

Principal Edward Hayden tossed the devices from the roof of the two-story school. Several eggs made it. Others leaked and the devices needed rethinking.

But that height just didn't seem adequate. One student mentioned MacArthur Airport in Islip.

After school, I stopped there and was told to speak with a flight instructor. He smiled at the proposal and recruited two more pilots to take our egg-drop devices aloft.

Kids had two weeks to construct their final modules. Some openly discussed designs in class. Others treated them as top secret. After a second roof test, only 17 out of about 25 eggs survived.

On the big day, three Cessnas made repeated runs carrying a pilot and three tightly buckled-in kids, even those whose modules had failed. The pilots assigned the altimeter reading to the student in the front. The two kids in the rear seat were the "droppers."

We flew toward the school at 2,000 feet. As we approached the area above the school's seven-acre playground and athletic field, the pilot shouted, "Open doors!"

The pilot and the kid in the front pushed the doors open against the strong wind. Then the pilot shouted, "Drop modules!" Students in back dropped the devices out the doors. Then we watched them tumble as the plane banked for the return trip.

After perhaps 10 flights, we drove back to the school to retrieve the devices. Most landed in the target area. A few landed in backyards and were delivered to the school by neighbors who had heard about our experiment.

A Newsday story about our project called it "Operation Egg-Drop." The paper reported that out of the 17 modules, eggs on 15 survived, one was smashed, and one was never found.

 

The paper said that the one with the broken egg was designed in consultation with a Grumman engineer who was certain that it would be the only survivor.

The class decided to write a letter to Grumman offering engineering advice.

The kids never heard back. Of course, 44 years ago this month, Grumman's module landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon, and brought them back to their command module for a safe trip home.

Reader Bruce Stasiuk lives in Setauket.

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