By Michelle Toscano
This year marks the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 11 moon landing, an event of particular significance for Long Islanders. Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s voice from the surface of the moon saying, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” perfectly sums up the historic and extraordinary quest of the Apollo program “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” It was a quintessentially American challenge of discovery and exploration, an unparalleled feat of engineering and physics, the advent of practical computer technology and software programming…and Long Island was at the heart of it all.
In 1962, at the height of the space race and NASA’s desperate push to land Americans on the moon, Bethpage-based Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp. won the NASA contract to design and construct the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) for the Apollo program. The LEM was the strangely-shaped spacecraft which actually landed on the lunar surface, and from which Neil Armstrong took his first historic step. The lucrative 350 million-dollar NASA contract brought immediate and profound effects to Long Island, creating thousands of new jobs and a sense of purpose and pride to Grumman employees. Yet this wasn’t the first time Long Island was at the forefront of the aerospace industry.
Long Island has long been known for its importance in the history of aviation and flight. Called the Cradle of Aviation for its numerous air fields and aircraft production facilities, particularly during World War II, Long Island housed training centers for pilots, was the home of three major airfields – including Roosevelt Field where Charles Lindbergh departed from in his trans-Atlantic flight aboard the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927, and Curtiss Field where Amelia Earhart and other women founded the International Organization of Women Pilots in 1929 – and during the “Golden Age” of aviation (1918-1938), an astounding 20 aircraft manufacturers alone were established on Long Island. By 1945, over 100,000 people on Long Island worked in the aircraft industry and today over 240 companies on Long Island still work in the aerospace industry.
“The known limits of flight were expanded regularly in the skies over Long Island” (article here) and so it is no surprise that when Americans turned to spaceflight, the unknown frontier, it was Long Island’s aviators who led the way. The LEM, which was designed and created entirely on Long Island, was the first manned spacecraft to operate wholly in the airless vacuum of space and remains, to this day, the only crewed vehicle to land anywhere beyond Earth. It was used throughout the Apollo program and remains the jewel in Grumman’s resume.
It might not have “made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs” like Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon, but it was the astronauts’ “only hope” during that fateful Apollo 13 mission, providing life support and propulsion for the crew in order to return them safely to Earth, and was the most reliable component of the entire, combined Apollo and Saturn-rocket space vehicle throughout the Apollo program. It was furthermore the only part of the spacecraft to never have a systems, engine or component problem which could not be resolved in time to prevent aborting a landing mission.
Fifty years on from Apollo 11, Long Islanders can take pride in the extraordinary achievements of their neighbors and forebearers and honor their commitment to pushing back the boundaries of the unknown as pioneers in the field of aerospace.
Quotes are attributed to Neil Armstrong, Star Trek, Cradle of Aviation Museum and Star Wars.
Michelle Toscano is a paralegal and legal researcher at CMM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.