Originally published in Newsday
Ernest Finamore never gets tired of telling the story.
And neither do Sam Koeppel or Mike Lisa.
All three worked for Grumman Aerospace Corp. on a special assignment called the Lunar Excursion Module. They were among 70 Grumman employees in Bethpage who were tasked with helping ensure astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could make the trip to outer space.
That was more than 50 years ago. Since then, most of the lunar module team has retired or died. But a handful of former Grumman employees — or “Grummanites,” as they call themselves — are still on Long Island. They have a retirees club with chapters in Bethpage and Riverhead, and some of them volunteer as docents at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City.
Anyone can ask the docents about exhibits in the museum, but these men smile even wider if someone asks what it was like building a NASA spacecraft that went to the moon.
“To work on this program, if they would have said work 60 hours a week, I would have done it,” said Richard J. Gran, 77, who now lives in Massachusetts and worked at Grumman for 33 years before retiring in 1995. “It was just fun.”
The Grumman Retiree Club is a nonprofit group that was established in October 1967. It has about 2,500 members in 18 chapters across Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, California and other states. A majority of the membership belongs to the home chapter in Bethpage, said Bob Ripp, the club’s president.
Ripp said former Grumman employees started the club so they could “keep the retirees together and keep that camaraderie” that they felt when they were employees.
“Grumman was a very benevolent organization,” Ripp said. “It was run like a family-oriented company, so this was put together more as a social organization.”
All told, it took thousands of scientists, researchers, technicians and engineers more than a decade to get someone to the moon. Still, the Grummanites tell their part of the story as if it happened last week.
In the late 1950s, America’s arch-nemesis was the Soviet Union. Americans wanted to beat the Soviets at everything, including space exploration. Both countries were building systems to send into space and be brought back to Earth. Then, in October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, a satellite that successfully orbited Earth.
The Soviets had one-upped America.
Four years later, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy raised the stakes in America’s space race with the Soviets. Appearing on national television, Kennedy declared that Americans would put a man on the moon before the 1960s ended. His proclamation lit a fuse under everyone interested in space exploration, including the executives at Grumman, an aerospace and defense technology company.
The company officially joined the race by submitting a bid proposal to build a moon spacecraft. Grumman was one of many companies competing for the NASA contract.
Sam Koeppel, 87, of Floral Park, was the technical editor who massaged every word of the company’s bid proposal. He still remembers how particular NASA was about how the proposal should be submitted.
“They didn’t want all the heavy detail of a lot of books,” said Koeppel, who has been a museum docent for 15 years and worked at Grumman for 23 years. “They wanted 50 pages answering 20 questions specifically on certain things that NASA wanted to know about. Labor Day 1962, we delivered the proposal after a strenuous six weeks.”
In November 1962, the good news came.
Koeppel and other Grummanites said they believe the company won because they pitched a unique method for getting astronauts to the moon called lunar orbit rendezvous.
“Bethpage went berserk,” he said.
The celebrations were short-lived, as the real work was about to begin. The president had issued a challenge, time was running out and no one at Grumman had ever built a spacecraft.
Kennedy made his declaration “in May 1961 and we all counted and it was only 8 1⁄2 years and we hadn’t really even gotten a sketch yet,” Koeppel said.
Grummanites desperately wanted to meet Kennedy’s deadline, so they worked long hours week after week.
Mike Lisa, 75, of Hicksville was an environmental test engineer on the team. One of his most vivid memories was the 50-hour workweeks. Working on the spacecraft was fun and everyone enjoyed the overtime pay, Lisa said, but the long days eventually caught NASA’s attention.
“It actually got to a point where we were working so many hours that people were leaving their (work) areas filthy because we didn’t have an opportunity to do the cleaning,” said Lisa, who worked for Grumman for 36 years until retiring in 2009. “It got to a point where NASA came down – I’ll never forget this – NASA came down and said ‘Hey, we know you guys have a goal, but you gotta get this place straightened out.’”
Employees eventually did clean up the place and the work continued.
Most of the spacecraft design work centered on using lightweight materials. That’s because a heavier spacecraft would require more fuel and NASA was hoping to save money on fuel costs, the Grummanites said.
With every addition or modification to the spacecraft, Ernest Finamore, 91, who worked for Grumman for 45 years and then became a museum volunteer in 1999, was in charge of inspecting it. He checked the tubes used for the hydraulic system. He checked all the electrical wires and the connectors attached to them. And when he was finished, he had to call a Navy engineer who would double-check his work.
This back-and-forth went on for months. Finamore and his team did quality assurance while Gran worked on a team that calculated how much fuel was needed for the spacecraft to complete different maneuvers.
Finally, the work was finished and out came the spacecraft — all 8,650 pounds of it. The Grummanites had beaten Kennedy’s deadline with time to spare.
The module was shipped to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where it was launched into space. It landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. The event aired on national television and captivated the world’s attention.
As it touched down, Grummanites watched with excitement and a hint of nervousness.
Armstrong and Aldrin’s famous trip marked the end of a job well done for the Bethpage Grummanites. In 1969, Newsday reported that two Grumman employees broke down and cried during the moon landing.
No matter what role you had or how little you were involved, everyone from the lunar module team watched the men land with the same thoughts racing through their minds, said Contessa, 70, of St. James, who was a Grumman thermal insulation technician and worked for the company for three years.
“There was a little nervousness going on,” he said. “We were sweating it out. Nobody wanted to be the guy who made the mistake that screwed this up.”