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LI Grumman retirees share what it was like working on Apollo 11 lunar module

To mark the 50th anniversary the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969, some of those involved retrace their steps and the giant leap that made history. (Credit: Archival Footage: National Archives and Records Administration; Newsday staff)

The lunar module. Boxy body. Gangly legs. Wrapped in gold foil. A creature of sorts perfect for outer space.

Man wouldn't have landed on the moon if it hadn't been for the module. And, in a way, America has Long Island to thank because of the outsize role that a Bethpage-based company played in the Apollo program.

Grumman Corp. designed and built the lunar module that Neil Armstrong climbed out of on July 20, 1969. In all, the aviation giant manufactured 13 lunar modules; six are still on the moon today.

How Grumman landed the contract was simple: It stepped up with the best plan.

NASA had settled on a module to carry two of the mission's three astronauts from the mother ship to the moon and back, but needed a design. Grumman's engineers pulled out the stops to deliver. In a 50-page proposal, they laid out their vision for a small, ultra-lightweight spacecraft with cutting-edge technology. 

After winning the contract in 1962, roughly 9,000 of Grumman's 25,000 employees — 36 percent — found themselves attached to the module. Long Island came to know them as Grummanites.

"The lunar module is one of the most historic machines ever built by man," said Joshua Stoff, curator for the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, where an original lunar module is on display. "This was one of the focal points of mankind's effort to go to the moon."

Grumman deployed workers strategically across the country: the 600-acre complex in Bethpage; Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida; Johnson Space Center in Houston; and White Sands Test Site in New Mexico, said Dianne Baumert-Moyik, a senior manager at Northrop Grumman Corp.

The 2,400 engineers — 1,800 who worked on the module and 600 who worked on ground support — worked out of the Long Island headquarters, Baumert-Moyik said.

The other 6,600 did all kinds of jobs that didn't require a college degree — from installing insulation to guarding the module, said Stoff, who also co-wrote of "Chariots for Apollo: The Making of the Lunar Module."

"When you look at photos out on the shop floor, it's blue-collar guys," he said. "There were machinists, riveters, welders — people with a high school education … building a spacecraft that would go to the moon."

Hot and cold

Al Contessa has a black-and-white Polaroid of himself squeezed inside the Apollo 11 rocket, hard at work on the lunar module. 

As Contessa recalls, some guy snapped the picture in late June of 1969. The module was at the top of the rocket, which was already on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. 

Contessa is wearing the hooded white smock that essentially was his uniform at Grumman. All the thermal insulation specialsts like him had to put one on — and white cotton gloves, too — so they wouldn't get any dust on the module.

The shiny gold insulation wasn't just any old insulation. The paper-thin layers protected the module  — and the astronauts — from the most extreme of temperatures, highs that climbed into the mid-200s and lows that dropped to nearly minus-300.

Contessa cherishes the Polaroid because his work crew was one of the last to go inside Apollo 11. With only weeks to go before liftoff, NASA officials decided they needed to insulate the lower portion of the module's landing gear from the heat of the engine blasts.

Their 11th-hour decision scrambled Contessa and four co-workers to Cape Canaveral. They had to take a caged elevator to get to the top of 363-foot-tall rocket, where the module was tucked away.

 When all was said and done, the Grummanites had added 39 pounds of insulation.

"It was the most exhilarating job of my life," recalled Contessa, now 72. "It was mankind's greatest adventure, and I was part of it."

Form over function

The module's hatch was all wrong. Circular with a tunnel. Small. Too small. 

During testing, an Armstrong stand-in couldn't even get through the door. In his pressurized spacesuit and carrying a backpack, the stand-in never made it inside. He bent over to climb in, fell over and couldn't get up.

It was back to the drawing board for Ross Bracco and the other structural designers.

"We had to do away with the tunnel and make the hatch larger," recalled Bracco, 83, of Hauppauge. "We made it a rectangle so he could fit through."

The changes were small but critical. An astronaut would have been in real danger if his spacesuit had caught on the hatch during the mission.

Bracco and his fellow team members were determined to do whatever they had to. They understood the magnitude of the project: America's reputation was on the line. 

"I wanted to make sure that everything I did was perfect," Bracco said.

Shake, rattle and roll

Mike Lisa was the chief stress tester, aka an environmental test engineer.

His team had to make sure the module could handle the rigors of space. They pulled out all the stops, using strain gauges, heat sensors and a big apparatus called a tumbler.

"We were pushing the envelope of engineering design," said Lisa, 76, of Hicksville.

The tumbler flipped the module around and upside-down. During one go-round, a metal nut fell to the floor — and that was bad. In the zero gravity of space, a loose nut floating around could cause a short or damage switches or other equipment.

"NASA stopped the program for three or four days," Lisa recalled. "They inspected the daylights out of the inside of the cabin."

Just before the module landed on the moon, its long metal probes made contact with the lunar surface. Lisa could imagine the purple indicator light going on, alerting Armstrong.

"I knew because I had tested it a thousand times," he said.

Media maestro

Dick Dunne handled the module’s PR.

He had press kits. Lunar maps. Binders filled with reports,

On the day that the Eagle landed on the moon, the phones didn’t stop ringing.

“Calls were coming in from all over the world,” recalled Dunne, 81, of West Islip.

And he had to keep tabs on a television project that recreated the surface of the moon in a Grumman hangar. CBS news paid for everything. Trucks hauled in tons of sand and ash. Grummanites put up a full-size mock-up of the module, open in the back to get cameras inside. Two astronaut stand-ins mimicked the moves of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, in real time.

Dunne had a philosophy about “what if” questions from reporters: He didn’t answer them. He dealt with facts, not speculation.

Still, he was prepared if whatever happened. That’s what a good PR rep does.

“We had two statements we had written before — one for success and the other for failure,” he said. If something went terribly wrong, the company would express “concern and sorrow.”

Heady encounter

Gary Morse had a one-on-one with Neil Armstrong, late in the summer of 1968.

Morse was a 20-something technician who worked on the cabin. Armstrong had rolled into town for a dry run of his commands.

Nobody else was around when Armstrong walked in, just Morse standing there with his headset on. And a headset is what Armstrong needed to practice his commands.

“So, I handed him my headset so he could do his thing, and then he gave it back to me when he was done.”

Morse, now 73, recalls how gracious Armstrong was on that day, less than a year before he would land on the moon. 

The Apollo era was beyond busy. Morse figures he spent 10,000 hours over five years inside the cabin of a lunar module — so much time that many of his co-workers didn't know him.

“I was absolutely thrilled just to be part of it," said Morse, a Levittown native who calls Florida home these days. “It was a crazy time, but we got it right.”

The final word

Sam Koeppel held the future of Grumman in his hands. That’s what the big boss told him.

It was late August of 1962, the last weekend before the company had to submit its proposal to build the lunar module. Koeppel was the editor on the final 50-page document.

He started Friday morning and worked nearly a day and a half straight. He ate at his desk. His eyes burned he went over the document page by page, making sure the language was concise, accurate and understandable.

He found himself marrying all his knowledge as an engineer and all the skills he had honed as editor of his college newspaper.

“Melting it down,” recalled Koeppel, now 89 and living in Floral Park.

By his side the whole time were two other Grummanites, an artist/layout specialist and a fellow tasked with chasing down the answer to any question he had. 

About 2 a.m. Saturday, Koeppel found an error in the engineering work.

“I’ve got a problem,” he told his team members. They solved it by calling an engineer at home, rousing him out of bed.

Six hours later, one of Grumman's top engineers walked into the office and sidled up to Koeppel. The engineer, Joe Gavin, would go on to head the module program.

“You have complete control over the whole Grumman company,” Gavin told him. “I’ll be in the next-door office. Anything you need, you let me know.”

Koeppel finally walked out the door at 6 p.m.

“I couldn’t see very well,” he said. “I saw flashes of light as I blinked.”

Two months later, in November, NASA accepted the Grumman proposal. Grumman blasted out the news over the loudspeakers in the plant. Workers cheered, shook hands, patted each other on the back.

When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon seven years later, Koeppel was sitting alone in his living room. Everybody in the house had gone to sleep.

“I just smiled,” he said, “knowing we’d done something special.”

With Bart Jones

Grumman Corp. assigned roughly 9,000 of its 25,000 employees to the lunar module. They were scattered across the country.

  • 7,000 at the Bethpage headquarters
  • 1,400 at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida
  • 450 at Johnson Space Center in Houston
  • 300 at White Sands Test Site, New Mexico

Source: Northrop Grumman Corp.

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