Going places: Long Island’s World-Class Cradle of Aviation Museum Hosts Special Events for 50th Anniversary of Moon Landing

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Littlest Astronaut meets Apollo 7 Astronaut Walt Cunningham at one of the Cradle of Aviation Museum events to mark 50th anniversary of lunar landing. The museum has a special exhibit Cradle of Aviation’s “Space: A Journey to Our Future” and will host special events on July 20 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The countdown clock in the lobby of the Cradle of Aviation Museum showed 43 days to July 20, the 50th anniversary of the first man to walk on the moon, on the night of the museum’s grand gala at which seven former astronauts and flight directors were feted – Walt Cunningham (Lunar Module Pilot, Apollo 7), Rusty Schweickart (Lunar Module Pilot, Apollo 9), Fred Haise (Lunar Module Pilot, Apollo 13). Charlie Duke (Lunar Module Pilot, Apollo 16), Harrison Schmitt (Lunar Module Pilot, Apollo 17) and Apollo Flight Directors, Gerry Griffin and Milt Windler – along with Grumman employees who built the lunar module and the equipment which put them there.

Throughout this year, the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Uniondale, Long Island, not far from where the lunar module was designed and built by Grumman engineers in Bethpage and a stone’s throw from Roosevelt Field where Charles Lindbergh took off for his historic transatlantic flight to Paris, has been hosting special events to mark the anniversary, use it for STEM education and inspire a new generation eager to reach for the stars.

The events climax on July 20, when at the exact same moment as Neil Armstrong made his “giant leap for mankind”, a replica lunar module will descend from the ceiling. Museum goers also can see an actual lunar module, one of the six that Grumman built (three are still on the moon, and the other three are in the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and here at the Cradle of Aviation Museum).

One of the extraordinary exhibits on view at the museum now is “Space: A Journey to Our Future,” which is on view through August 18, 2019, an absolutely thrilling, immersive exhibit which takes you from the dawn of man’s earliest visions of space exploration to the heroic achievements of the past, the unfolding discoveries of today, and the frontiers of the universe that lie ahead. You get to touch actual rocks from the lunar surface and the red planet, explore a futuristic Lunar Base Camp while walking through a full-size space habitat and work pod, get an up-close look at a wide range of artifacts from the space program and experience the past, present and future of space through these and dozens of other displays, interactive (try your hand at landing the space shuttle!) and experiences.

Also, as part of this special celebration, the museum is showing Todd Douglas Miller’s new documentary film, “Apollo 11: First Steps Edition,” a special giant-screen edition created exclusively for science centers and museum theaters, like Cradle’s Dome Theater. With a newly-discovered trove of never-before-seen 70mm footage and audio recordings, APOLLO 11: First Steps Edition joins Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, the Mission Control team and millions of spectators around the world, during those momentous days and hours in 1969 when humankind took a giant leap into the future.

The “Apollo at 50: Moon Fest,” on July 20 will be a family festival (9:30-5 pm, with activities 12-4pm) with visits from Long Island Space Shuttle Astronauts including Bill Shepherd (Babylon) and Charlie Carmada (Ozone Park). All day activities include virtual reality experiences, model rocket launches, and a countdown at 4:18 pm to collectively watch, re-experience, and honor as a community, the historic “The Eagle has Landed” Lunar Module landing on the moon. As a special bonus, all museum attendees will get a free showing of the new highly-acclaimed documentary, Apollo 11 First Steps Edition in the immersive Dome Theater. (Tickets: $20)

Then, in the evening, there will be a Countdown Celebration, a lively dinner and champagne toast with 1960s music and dancing, as the community watches and re-experiences the unforgettable first steps on the moon at 10:56 pm with a special moon landing viewing and countdown. Photo opportunities in a re-created 1969 living room. (The dinner event ticket includes admission to Apollo Moon Fest events during the day; tickets: $125).

Long Island: The Nation’s Cradle of Aviation

The Cradle of Aviation Museum and Education Center is home to over 75 planes and spacecraft representing over 100 years of aviation history, from hot air balloons to the lunar module, in eight galleries, a planetarium and Long Island’s only Giant Screen Dome Theater.

The Cradle of Aviation Museum commemorates and celebrates Long Island’s part in the history of aviation and space exploration. It is set on land once part of Mitchel Air Force Base which, together with nearby Roosevelt Field and other airfields on the Hempstead Plains, was the site of many historic flights. In fact, so many seminal flights occurred in the area, that by the mid-1920s the cluster of airfields was already dubbed the “Cradle of Aviation”, the origin of the museum’s name. The Museum was recently recognized and listed on New York State’s National Register of Historic Places as a significant part of American history.

The museum originally opened with just a handful of aircraft in the un-restored hangars in 1980. A major renovation and expansion program in the late 1990s allowed the museum to re-open in a state-of-the-art facility in 2002. The museum is undergoing a major fund-raising campaign for a future expansion.

It is remarkable to contemplate that within a century, aviation went from the Wright Brothers to the moon, from a dangerous sport to mass transportation and commercial enterprise, and Long Island played a significant part.

It starts with Long Island’s geography: a natural airfield, on the eastern edge of the United States, the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean, adjacent to a major population center, and Hempstead Plains, the only natural prairie east of the Allegheny Mountains, writes Joshua Stoff, Curator, Cradle of Aviation Museum.

We trace flying back to the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903, lasting 59 seconds over a distance of 852 feet but Stoff notes that the first recorded aircraft flight took place on Long Island, in 1896 when a Lilienthal-type glider was flown from the bluffs along Nassau County’s north shore. By 1902 gasoline-powered airships were flown over Brooklyn (why doesn’t Long Island get more credit?). By 1910, there were three airfields operating on the Hempstead Plains, Long Islanders were building their own planes, and there were several flying schools and aircraft factories that made Long Island “the center of the aviation world.” Exhibits show artifacts of these early pursuits.

Belmont Park hosted the 1910 International Aviation Meet of the greatest aviators from America and Europe.

“The period between 1918 and 1939 is considered the ‘Golden Age of Aviation’ when flying went from being a dangerous sport to a major commercial industry,” Stoff writes. Most famous of all was Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo transatlantic flight, from Roosevelt Field to Paris, in 1927. “This single event revolutionized aviation as nothing else before or since…

“By the early 1930s Roosevelt Field was the largest and busiest civilian airfield in America with over 150 aviation businesses and 450 planes based there. In 1937 the first regular commercial transatlantic airline service in America was begun at Port Washington as huge Pan American Martin and Boeing flying boats departed and arrived regularly at Manhasset Bay.”

World War II sparked aviation and demand for aircraft. The two biggest aircraft companies, Grumman, was founded in Long island in 1930; Republic in 1931. They produced most of the military aircraft; other companies, Sperry, Brewster, Ranger, and Columbia, also contributed to the war effort. By 1945, 100,000 Long Islanders were employed in the aircraft industry.

Though aircraft are no longer manufactured on Long Island (the Grumman plant in Bethpage is now a movie and television studio), it is surprising to realize that there are still 240 Long Island producing parts for virtually every American aircraft that flies.

Long Island’s important contribution to aviation is brilliant displayed in exhibits throughout the halls.

Long Island in Space

Thomas J. Kelly, of Cutchogue, retired president of the Grumman Space Station Integration Division and formerly lunar module engineering director, writes that there is still some Long Island left on the moon – six spacecraft built on Long Island remain on the moon,

Designing and building those craft, as part of the greater challenge of beating the Russians to the moon by 1969, was a monumental endeavor. Writing on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the moon landing, Kelly reflected, “For some 7,000 Grumman employees, however, it was far more intimate than an issue of national prestige. We felt personally empowered to put Americans at the edge of a frontier that even today seems incomprehensible. Yet not only did we succeed in meeting the mission; the efforts of our nation’s commitment to lunar exploration also inspired people around the world and showed the finest possibilities of human achievement and of creating technology that now helps to power our society…

“Nobody at Grumman who worked on the LM will ever forget it. Even the 12-and 14-hour weekdays, the frustrating paperwork and the sheer complexity of designing, building and testing the module could not dim our dedication. From the sweeper to the chief engineer, we all knew that we were part of a majestic endeavor, that we were making history happen.”

At the gala, I meet Richard A. Hoffman sitting in front of the museum’s own actual lunar module, built by Grumman in Bethpage. He was a metallurgist who determined what the different parts should be made of aluminum for the struts, titanium for the propellant tanks, stainless steel for the propellent, high output silver and silver oxide batteries. He had to figure the pyrotechnics that would cause the four bolts that secured the module on the descent, to burst at just the right time with guillotine cutters for lift off from the moon. Hoffman told me he came to Grumman in the summer of 1963, and got a job there right after graduating Brooklyn Polytech in 1964. He was in just the right place at the right time, when Grumman started working on the Apollo program and he was transferred to engineering.

Apollo Astronauts Look Back

On this gala night at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Uniondale, Long Island, five of the Apollo astronauts, including three of only 12 men who have ever walked on the moon, and two flight directors who controlled the Apollo missions, reflected on their experiences. It was an epic event in a year of events marking the occasion and inspiring interest in space science.

The Cradle of Aviation Museum has special meaning to the astronauts, many of whom have come to the museum to give talks and participate in events over the years. Not only is it home to one of the world’s most extensive collections of Lunar Modules,(LM-13, LTA-1) Lunar Module parts and Lunar Module photos and documentation, but it’s also home to the engineers of Grumman Aerospace Corporation that designed, built and tested the Lunar Modules between 1961-1972 that successfully landed 12 men on the moon between 1969-1972.

Rusty Schweickart was the first to pilot the Lunar Module, testing the craft on the Apollo 9 mission in 1969 before it was used on the moon in Apollo 11. He was one of the first astronauts to space-walk without a tether, and one of the first to transmit live TV pictures from space. He is also credited with development of the hardware and procedures which prolonged the life of the Skylab space station.

Schweickart reflected on a moment when he was essentially stranded in space. “I turned around and looked at earth, brilliant blue horizon. There was no sound – I was floating inside my suit which was floating. Just hanging out looking at earth, completely silent. My responsibility at that moment was to absorb: I’m a human being. Questions floated in: how did I get here, why was I here. I realized the answer was not simple. What does ‘I’ mean? ‘Me’ or ‘us’. Humanity – our partnership with machines allowed humankind to move out to this environment. 10,000 years from now, it will still be the moment when humanity stepped out to space. While we celebrate something we were part of, it’s one of the events in human history, that if we don’t wipe ourselves out, we will still have this unique moment in time when life moved out to outer space.”

Fred Haise, the Lunar Module Pilot on the Apollo 13 mission, would have been the 6th man to walk on the moon. After the Apollo program ended in 1977, he worked on the Shuttle program, and after retiring from NASA, worked for 16 years as an executive for Northrop Grumman Corporation.

Haise reflected that when JFK made his challenge to go to the moon before the end of the decade, he thought this was mission impossible based on where the technology was. “I saw nothing at hand that would have accomplished that. By then, there was just Alan Shepherd who went up and down, the rockets we had were invented by Germans in World War II.”

When disaster struck the Apollo 13 – an oxygen tank exploded, crippling the Service Module which supplied power and life support to the Command Module – he reflected, “We weren’t afraid. All of us in the program did the best we could. We were aware of the problems. Everyone was willing to pay the price to make the mission successful.”

The situation was not immediately life-threatening. ”Clearly we had lost one tank. I was sick to my stomach with disappointment that we had lost the moon. It took us almost an hour to stop the leak in the second tank. “

The Lunar Module was pressed into service as a literally lifeboat and tugboat – a role never anticipated for it.

“The LM bought time, I was never worried. We were not sure how it would operate past the two days. Nothing had been damaged in the LM, so I knew we had a homestead we could operate from, and people on the ground were losing a lot of sleep working through the challenges. We never really got to the cliff we were about the fall off.”

Despite great hardship caused by limited power, loss of cabin heat, shortage of cooling water and the critical need to make repairs to the carbon dioxide removal system, the crew returned safely to Earth. It was hailed as the most successful failure.

Charlie Duke (Lunar Module Pilot, Apollo 16, the 10th person to walk on the moon and the youngest, at 36 years old), reflected “Driving over the surface of the moon, we didn’t have TV. I was the travel guide for mission control, 250,000 miles away. So I narrated, ‘Now we’re passing on the right…’ – giving a travelogue – as we drove from point A to point B, and I was taking pictures….Rover did tremendously well, it revolutionized lunar exploration, to see so much. I say to all the Grumman folks here who worked on that, you guys built a great machine. Three rovers are up there, if you want an $8 million car with a dead battery.”

Harrison Schmitt (Lunar Module Pilot, Apollo 17) was also a former geologist, professor, US Senator from New Mexico. He was the lunar module pilot on Apollo 17, the final manned lunar landing mission. He was the first scientist and one of the last astronauts to walk on the moon – the 12th man and second youngest person to set foot on the moon.

“The thing about our valley [where the mission explored], Apollo worked in a brilliant sun, as brilliant as any New Mexico sun, but the sky was absolute black. That was hard to get used to. We grow up with blue skies. I never felt comfortable with black sky. But in that black sky was of course that seemingly small planet Earth, always hanging over the same part of the valley. Whenever I was homesick, I would just look up – home was only 250,000 miles away.”

Milt Windler was one of the four flight directors of Apollo 13 Mission Operations Team, all of whom were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Richard M. Nixon for their work in guiding the crippled spacecraft safely back to Earth.

About the Apollo 13 mission, he said, “Missions were divided into distinct phases – launch, lunar descent, EVA, rendezvous – and there were teams for each. Each team simulated, practiced problems. One of the things that worked well on Apollo was anticipating what would happen. After a flight, we would discuss lessons learned, to come up with improvements. By the time of Apollo 13 developed a real serious problem, we were a finely honed machine.”

Gerry Griffin joined NASA in 1964 as flight controller in Mission Control during Project Gemini. In 1968, he was named a Mission Control flight director for all the Apollo manned mission.

Griffin reflected on the “perfect storm” of forces and factors that resulted in the incomparable space program that put a man on the moon within a decade. Neil Armstrong had said you needed four things: threat, bold leadership, public support and resources. “He said that most of the time, those are out of sequence with each other – you may have the threat but not the resources. It was a perfect storm when Apollo happened”: the threat from the Soviet Union taking mastery of space frontier; a balanced budget not yet weighted down by national debt; bold political leadership and public support. “You had the resources and human resources, primarily from World War II from the aviation industry, with Grumman part of that.

“If it hadn’t been Apollo, it would have been something else. When the Soviets launched Sputnik and then Gagarin [became the first man in space], the threat was clear, and everything else fell into line. I think he’s right. Nowadays, we have a threat now – China – those guys are good. There is a technological threat now, and could be more later. Leadership? Draw your own conclusion. Resources? We haven’t had them. Public support? … But I’m an optimistic. If we are going to make 2024 – that’s awful tight, but I was like Fred, I didn’t think we could land on moon in the 1960s, but we did. Maybe if things line up better, we could do it by 2024, if not 2028.”

Asked why we haven’t been back to the moon, Schweickart said, “You need to be young, innovative, not an aging bureaucracy….

“You need technological, political courage. The moon was in exactly the right place. The next steps are not quite that easy. There is a debate between going back to the moon or on to Mars that has raged for years and still does. There’s not the same opportunity that we had at that time. In many ways, the most important thing in terms of a sense of challenge, moving out, moving forward is one of age. Bureaucracy – corporation or government – where the average age increases every year, you’re cooked.”

The astronauts seemed encouraged by private enterprise taking over space exploration, along with the youth and idealistic exuberance. “You don’t see much about Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos, but we will. When you see [Elon Musks’s] SpaceX launch Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and bring back two stages that land in formation, and the cameras show all these kids, 20 years old, hooping and hollering, they did it! That’s what it takes. NASA used to be that way. Part of the real juice in space exploration is encouraging private activities in space. That today is where most of the juice is, getting young people involved is the key, giving them the opportunity. Jeff Bezos says it well. His fundamental motivating, commitment to space is to reduce the cost so more and more can take part and therefore dramatically increase the quality and opportunity for innovation. As the cost of getting to space drops, the creativity will dramatically increase. That’s where it’s at in the future.”

Walt Cunningham a fighter pilot before he became an astronaut, in 1968, he was a Lunar Module Pilot on the Apollo 7 mission. He’s also been a physicist, entrepreneur, venture capitalist and author of “The All American Boys.”

“Our society is changing,” he reflected the next evening when he gave a lecture at the museum. “Back when Apollo was a story of exploration and adventure – my generation – we had the opportunity and courage to reach around the moon and to the stars. We were willing to take risks, didn’t shy from unknown. In those days, it seemed normal to do what we were doing – exploring the next frontier.

“That attitude enabled us to overcome obstacles. Any project as complex as Apollo required resources, technology, but most importantly, the will. Driven by the Cold War, all 3 came together in the 1960s and we went to moon. Think of it: only three generations separated man’s first flight off the earth and man’s first orbit around the earth. Only 3 generations.”

Cradle of Aviation Museum, Charles Lindbergh Blvd, Garden City, NY 11530 516-572-4111, Reservations 516-572-4066, http://cradleofaviationpr.org.
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