Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin with Author Andrew Chaikin at the...

Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin with Author Andrew Chaikin at the Long Island Preview for the HBO series "From The Earth to the Moon" .(Mar. 26, 1998) Credit: Phillip Davies

This story was originally published in Newsday on March 28, 1998

The crowd that gathered to honor the 1960s Grumman team celebrated a different kind of reunion this week, one that revisited the tension and awe that gripped America as it raced to beat its Soviet foes into space.

For the self-dubbed "Grummies," Thursday night's screening of the new Tom Hanks-produced TV mini-series on the space program opened a floodgate of proud memories. But in the back of everyone's mind lingered a note of sadness that the Grumman legacy - once synonymous with Long Island itself - may soon be coming to an end as Lockheed-Martin may soon be taking over what's left of the company.

Grumman, based in Bethpage, won a $2 billion contract with the government in 1968 to build the Lunar Excursion Module, six of which went to the moon.

"Tonight represents a big piece of Long Island history that has passed," said Tom Kelly, 68, the LEM's chief engineer who is now a Grumman retiree. "Being here with old friends - in a way it makes me sad."

After a VIP reception at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and a visit from astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the group watched the fourth hour of the 12-part series to air on HBO in April. The segment recounted the events of 1968, when the effort to launch Apollo 8, the first manned orbit of the moon, was marred by the political scars of Vietnam and the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

"The film brought back all these memories of the missions we worked on down in Houston and the hard work we did here," Kelly said.

His teammate Lynn Radcliff, 77, said the segment, which did not directly involve the LEM project, was "very realistic." Radcliff, who ran Grumman's LEM engine test facility in White Sands, N.M., keenly remembers the conflicting feelings of confidence and fear that marked his life at the time.

"When you look forward to something that's never been done before, it's very scary," the Lloyd Neck resident said.

Building the LEM was the high point of the Grumman team's careers, said Rob Fleisig, team manager for LEM 5, now 77 and living in Garden City. "I haven't seen any dedication like that before or since," he said, remembering the years of 70-hour, six-day weeks without overtime pay.

Joseph Gavin, Grumman vice president in charge of the LEM project, who watched the screening from the front row, knows that existence is a thing of the past. "There is no future for Grumman - I'm just glad it didn't happen on my watch," said Gavin, who was president of the company in the 1980s and now lives in Amherst, Mass. "Grumman had a unique culture, and that's been lost. Only the people that were there really know that culture."

For Tom Gwynne, a consultant pilot on the lunar module project in the early 1960s, that culture meant rushing to the flight simulators in the middle of the night to check and recheck sequences for the astronauts. "I was in the know at a time when everyone wanted to be," he said. "I knew all the jargon and could wow the hell out of everyone." Gwynne, 58, of Stony Brook, is retired.

John Devaney, 63, of Massapequa Park, recalls the division between the "old" Grumman guys and the "new" ones, those hired after the $2 billion LEM contract. "We always wore badges with numbers on them, and if you had a low number, it meant you were an old guy" and would be treated with respect, said Devaney, who was one of the new guys and worked on testing the lunar module. "If you had a high number, it meant you were a recruit from another company, and they wouldn't talk to you."

That quickly changed, though, as nearly 9,000 new workers came on board to complete the government contract and everyone worked closely together.

These days, as popular interest in the space program wanes, so does the public's vision for what is possible, Aldrin said. The mini-series, based on a book by Andrew Chaikin, who grew up in Great Neck, is an attempt to rekindle that enthusiasm.

"It portrays reality as best experts were able to do," Aldrin said. "It reminds us how to dream."

Get the latest news and more great videos at NewsdayTV Credit: Newsday

What's next for Democrats now that Biden is out ... Suffolk cyber security ... Cleaning up the beaches ... Sunflower fields

Get the latest news and more great videos at NewsdayTV Credit: Newsday

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