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Moon landing at 50: Cradle of Aviation brings kids into its orbit to celebrate historic event

The Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City hosted a kid-friendly exhibit to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.  (Credit: Marisol Diaz-Gordon)

Saturday was for the children.

On the day when Americans landed on the moon 50 years ago, Long Island's Cradle of Aviation Museum pulled out all the stops to transmit the awesomeness of that moment to a new generation.

No dry textbook speeches, the museum on Saturday transformed into a play land of space fun: Kids raced "moon" buggies, marveled at miniature rocket launches, played with Lego robots and made oxygen packs out of a box, tinfoil and some string.

When little Samuel Murillo sat inside the electric car-turned-moon buggy and mashed down the foot pedal, his imagination took flight. He tooled around an area outside the museum, stopping to pick up "moon rocks," most of which were crumpled balls of duct tape.

"I feel like I was driving on the moon," said the 7-year-old from Queens. With a smile missing his two front teeth, he had a futuristic message for his fellow earthlings. "This is what we're going to do on the moon. We'll go on a rocket ship and blast off and go again and again and again."

The Moon Fest at the Garden City museum commemorated a moment of triumph for the United States and particularly Long Island. The lunar module that landed on our celestial neighbor July 20, 1969, was designed, built and tested in the Bethpage campus of Grumman Aerospace.

Beyond that, the moonshot was a world-rocking event that historians mark as among the most stupendous achievements of mankind. It also rocketed the United States to victory in the space race against the Russians and boosted the perception of American exceptionalism in the world.

Getting kids to appreciate that can be hard a half-century later, said museum president Andrew Parton.

"To get kids interested, you have to do something that's fun," Parton said. 

Still, behind all the fun was a message to this new crew of space buffs, he said. "Anything is possible."

When Samuel Murillo exited his space buggy, the boy made sure to take big steps as if in slow motion, just like an astronaut on the moon, as he headed to his sister and got a big hug.

His sister, Samantha, 12, said she's hoping to be the first female to go to Mars. The kids' rooms are filled with space toys and posters. Seeing all the space stuff at the museum, she said, "makes me think, 'Wow.'"

Swarms of kids orbited around tables where they transformed a plastic bottle, paper cone and some markers into a rocket ship. A big screen showed clips of astronaut Neil Armstrong hopping from the module onto the lunar surface, as his disembodied voice boomed from speakers: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

The Valencia family was enjoying the museum's re-creation of a 1969 living room, replete with an orange couch, transistor radio and Mets poster featuring Tom Seaver. Andre Valencia, 10, had never touched a rotary phone and he liked watching the original black-and-white broadcast of the moonwalk on the old, boxy TV that looked like it was wooden.

"It's fun to watch this knowing we'll do this again live when we return to the moon," said the boy from Fort Lee, New Jersey, who just finished Space Camp at the Kennedy Space Center.

He wants to join a space mission.

"I don't want to be on the first mission," he said, "because I don't want to crash."

The Cradle of Aviation opened in 1980. It has so many things from the Apollo missions that several men who worked on the Grumman module like to volunteer there. When they are there, they say, they feel back at Grumman doing the work that allowed them to touch a moment of history.

One of them, Ross Bracco, 83, of Hauppauge, was there Saturday sharing his stories. A structural designer at Grumman, he redesigned the hatch on the module when the initial one proved too small and round. He made it bigger and rectangular.

He stood near one of the three remaining lunar modules, an impressive sight more than 20 feet tall, all its gold foil glinting.

Seeing the kids looking at the moon rocks, astronaut suits and other remnants of space travel, he said, did his heart good.

"It's very, very cute," Bracco said.

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