When “First Man” opens in theaters nationwide this weekend, moviegoers can revisit the early days of the space race with Ryan Gosling as pioneering astronaut Neil Armstrong. For some Long Islanders, though, the bigger star might be the Lunar Excursion Module, built by the Grumman Aerospace Corp. at Bethpage, which carried Armstrong and his crew to the moon in 1969.
“It was pretty intricate,” says former Grumman worker Alan Contessa, of St. James, who served as a thermal insulation technician on the LEM. “Every chance I get, I let people know it was a herculean, amazing accomplishment.”
Re-creating the lunar module for “First Man” was no easy feat, either. Using a combination of elaborate miniatures, life-size sets and digital enhancements, the film’s effects team re-created the module in painstaking detail, complete with working gauges and refabricated nuts and bolts that were unique to the spacecraft. Effects supervisors who worked on the film say they came away deeply impressed by everything the Grumman workers accomplished without computers, 3-D printers or much of the sophisticated technology we possess today.
“I was blown away by what they had to do,” says special effects supervisor J.D. Schwalm. “All the little things, they were just mind-numbing, totally complex. I couldn’t believe they made some of these things without the machines we have now.”
Schwalm says his team began by making drawings of the module with computer-aided design software and then enlisted other departments to re-create various segments and sections of the spacecraft. One of Schwalm’s jobs was to connect a mind-boggling number of gauges — “well into the hundreds” — to a custom-built computer that would operate them in realistic-looking ways. “Every gauge did everything that the real gauges did,” Schwalm says. “Altimeters, feet-per-second descent, feet-per-second forward, G-forces, fuel gauges — everything.”
Even more important, though, was one particular piece: the landing leg that doubles as Armstrong’s exit ladder. “If there was going to be any pivotal moment in the movie, it’s going to be when he’s climbing down that ladder and making that first step,” says Schwalm. “If anything had to be correct, it was that leg.” To make sure the leg and ladder were as close to the real thing as possible, Schwalm’s team used industrial-size “turning centers” — essentially lathes — to fabricate individual parts from aluminum.
For longer shots of the module, miniature effects supervisor Ian Hunter created a scale model. “I sort of sketched, going back to my days building model planes, an exploded view, like a kit instruction,” he says. From there, many of the individual pieces were made on a 3-D printer called a BigRep. “It’s like the desktop ones, only this is the size of a room,” Hunter says.
For Hunter, a major part of the job was adding authentic-looking signs of stress and wear — little crinkles, oil-tanning — to the module’s exterior. The goal, he says, was to remind audiences that Armstrong’s journey was not science fiction but reality.
“Space movies tend to have a sort of slickness to them,” Hunter says. “But this movie was really saying: No, these people were building these things without the benefit of computers, building them by hand, and taking a great risk. We wanted to respect that.”