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Reflections on 'one small step'

Museum counts down to Apollo 11 anniversary

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Imagine a living room on July 20, 1969. A vintage black-and-white television sits in the corner, with its limited number of channels. A special news broadcast is showing Astronaut Neil Armstrong stepping off a spacecraft that looks much like an oversized insect as he intones, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

That was what Mike Lisa, manager of volunteer services for the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, witnessed on that summer evening 50 years ago.

“The evening in which they landed, I was in my living room, and I was watching this black-and-white TV,” Lisa said. “I was almost crying when they finally landed. I know I was. It was the greatest feeling in the world, and to be part of that historical event, you can’t even put a price on it.”

Lisa, now 77, worked on the Apollo program at Northrop Grumman — previously Grumman Aerospace Corp. — from 1963 to 1972, including the Apollo 11 mission, and said he loves being a part of history. “I’m so proud of it,” he said. “I feel great that I’m able to sit and discuss this with other people.”

The Grumman team, in Bethpage, was in charge of designing, assembling, testing and delivering six lunar excursion modules, which carried a total of 12 astronauts on six missions, to and from the surface of the moon from the Apollo command modules, according to the company’s website. During the disaster-plagued Apollo 13 mission, a LEM fulfilled another critical, unanticipated roles: ensuring the crew’s survival.

Lisa, of Hicksville, was an instrumentation and environmental test engineer at Grumman for a total of 36 years. He placed devices on lunar module test articles, or LTAs, that measured temperature, vibration and shock, and recorded and analyzed the information to make the necessary changes to the models to reduce the effects of shock and vibration.

“The whole idea was to replicate the blast-off, the landings and any maneuvers that had to be done between the time they left earth until they were coming down off the moon,” he said.

Lisa added that his job included testing the astronauts as well. “That would be taking an astronaut, for instance, and putting him in a centrifuge and spinning him around at between five and seven [G-forces],” he said, “and hoping [he didn’t] pass out.”

The goal, Lisa said, was to get the astronauts to the moon and back safely. “We were driven with the fact that we’re getting this guy on the moon, and we’re beating the Russians, and that’s for darn sure, and we’re doing it from Long Island,” he said.

In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the Cradle of Aviation Museum has a countdown clock on the wall by the check-in desks, that shows the days, minutes, hours and seconds until the actual anniversary of the first landing, which occurred at 4:15 p.m. EDT on July 20, 1969. Armstrong waited nearly seven hours before climbing out of the lunar module at 11 p.m. EDT, according to NASA.

Museum President Andrew Parton, of Wantagh, said he thought it was important for younger generations to study the Apollo missions, to learn that that anything can be accomplished if they set their minds to achieving it. “I think the fact that the work was done here on Long Island is important for them to know,” Parton said. “This occurred right in their own backyard. It’s probably one of the most important events in world history.”

Society has benefited from the technological advances that came out of the space program, he added — advances in telecommunications, renewable energy and computer technology. “Things that we take for granted today all were derived from the space program,” Parton said, “and Apollo was the driver.”

He said he believed that a good reason to return to space would be to figure out how to live in hostile environments, such as Mars or other planets. “Humankind has been [a species] that has always wanted to explore,” he said. “We’ve explored almost every inch of this planet, including going to the deepest part of the sea, so the next natural place for us to explore is space.”

The museum’s executive director, Jennifer Baxmeyer agreed with Parton that landing on the moon was “an incredible achievement” for mankind. “Wonderful things came out of it, too many to list, so why not try to recreate that or top it?” she said.

Baxmeyer said that there are only three Apollo lunar modules on earth, and the museum showcases one of them. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, and the Kennedy Space Center, in Merritt Island, Fla., display the other two.