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Will the work be remembered? One member of the Lunar Module team reflects

Former Grumman employee Peter Giargente, of Ronkonkoma, reflected on Monday, June 17 on the experience of having worked on the Apollo project.  (Credit: Johnny Milano)

Did man really land on the moon?

Peter Giargente, sitting at his kitchen table, aside a stack of photographs and mementos of his time as a lunar module assembler at Grumman, laughs at the notion of fakery.

And then he says: "You know, we did have an area in the plant that was made up to look like the moon."

And so there was. A full-scale model of the lunar module resided in a blacked-out hangar where workers layered hundreds of tons of crushed slag from a steel mill, topped with fine cinders and a dusting of powdered chalk, 2 feet deep, to simulate the lunar surface. An American flag and other instruments also were placed at the site, which was used for TV demonstrations.    

"Lit by only a few spotlights and low-level floods, the scene at Plant 4 was eerie and spine-tingling," according to one contemporary account in the compilation of Grumman newsletters Giargente, 76, who lives in Ronkonkoma, has in his collection. "You could almost believe you were on the moon."

Several minutes later into the conversation, the notion of fact and fakery pops up again.

This time, however, Giargente's not laughing.

"I talk to my grandchildren about, about what I did, about what other Long Islanders did and about how it was something that had never been done before," he says, wistfully. "But sometimes I'm afraid that they would be more excited if I had worked on 'Star Wars,' or some other movie about space than what we actually did."

Long Islanders working in teams for Grumman designed and built the lunar module — which, as Giargente uses a booklet of transparencies to illustrate — did dual duty as a landing mechanism and a launchpad for return to the orbiting command module.

There were others on Long Island all in on the Apollo 11 effort as well, part of the more than 400,000 people nationwide working on the project. They included the Lundy Electronics & Systems, of Glen Head, which handled waste management for the command and landing modules as well as the suits astronauts wore when walking on the moon to the Reeves Instrument Division of Dynamics Corporation of America, of Garden City, which took on lighting and a radar system for space travel and re-entry into Earth's atmosphere as its challenge.

Even the old Long Island Lighting Company boasted (as "an investor-owned, taxpaying company") of its involvement.

Giargante was 19 years old and recently hired at Grumman in 1963 when he became — according to his framed company certificate — "a member of the Lunar Module team" who "participated in the national effort to land American astronauts on the moon and return them safely to earth."

He was one of the youngest workers on his team which, he said, pointing toward a tall fellow standing behind him in one photograph, included an assembler, Ted, who was 17 years old.

Giargente reaches for another photo.

In it, he is on one side of a work room smiling as, across from the group, Apollo 1 astronaut Roger Chaffee (who later would die in a fire during preflight testing) is shaking hands with one of Giargente's co-workers.

In later photos, Giargente sports a mustache.

As the years passed, Giargente met his wife, Rosemarie, married and had a daughter and a son, all while continuing to work on successive lunar modules.

And then came July 1969, when astronauts maneuvered Grumman's handiwork down to the moon — for real.

Giargente still marvels at the accomplishment.

And with that, he points to one more item in his collection, a large poster of photographs with the title, "Lunar Module 3, Grumman's First Men in Space."   Giargente, along with his coworkers, signed the poster, which later, he said, was reduced to microfilm.

The film, Giargente said he was told, remains aboard the section of the lunar module resting, 50 years later, on the moon.

Still, Giargente frets that the work, drive and commitment of those who labored on the project remains underappreciated.

After the moon landing, he remained at Grumman for a time before — like so many others across the region — he was laid off.

Ironically, it was Wernher von Braun, the father of space rocketry who visited Grumman in 1963, who lamented the loss of NASA funding and talent.

"Total employment has plummeted from a peak of 420,000 in 1966 to 250,000 today," he wrote in an essay that appeared in Newsday on July 25,1969 ."… I am deeply concerned about the inevitable loss of technical competence that results from sagging employment."

Giargente was 27 years old when he left Grumman.

And it took nine months for him to find a new job.

The job was with the Suffolk County Department of Public Works, where a boss once told him that work he was slated to do on a bridge in Hampton Bays would be "the biggest project that the county had ever let out."

"He said that bridge would be a prestigious project for me," Giargente says, laughing at the memory.

"I told him, no," Giargente says. "I think I've worked on something more significant than that."

So did every other Long Islander working on the lunar project, according to Kevin Law, president and CEO the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group, which was founded in 1926.  

"They laid the foundation for the innovation economy we have today," he said.

"It was those founding fathers of the aerospace industry that created a significant cluster of engineers and contractors who combined to reinvent themselves in the areas of technology, telecommunications and other innovation industries," Law said. "But for them, we wouldn't have all of that on Long Island today."

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