Doorway to Space

July 2017

As I watched the lunar landing on television, my part in the whole scenario took on a new meaning.

It’s hard to believe that an entire generation has reached adulthood since that day twenty-one years ago when the world watched those grainy television images of two American astronauts cavorting on the moon. It was on July 20, 1969, that Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Ed “Buzz” Aldrin set down a funny-looking spindly-legged rig on the Sea of Tranquillity with the announcement “The Eagle has landed.” Eagle was the name given to this unlikely-looking space vehicle by the NASA people, but to the people of Grumman Aircraft (now called Grumman Aerospace) in Bethpage, Long Island, where it was built, it was the LEM, that being the acronym for “lunar excursion module.”

I was one of those people—part of a group of itinerant draftsmen known as job shoppers, currently plying my trade in the service of Grumman Aircraft, where I had been assigned to the LEM project during the creation of what was undoubtedly one of the homeliest of all pieces of space-age hardware. A full-size mockup of the thing had been set up on the roof of one of the buildings; I suspect most of the people driving past the plant on Route 107 thought it was part of the air-conditioning system.

Although the LEM was only one of three modules that were to be packaged together during the launch of the Apollo 11 moon shot, it was the component around which everything else was being built. This was the thing that was going to land on the moon with two men in it, and every other part of the project existed solely to get it up there and then to succeed in getting it safely back to Earth. Since the command and service modules and the Saturn V rocket to propel them all were being built at sites other than Grumman, manufacturing accuracy was critical. The pre-lunar-landing maneuvering required a series of separations and linkups between the LEM and the two other modules. Any difficulty encountered in these dockings and undockings could be disastrous, and the tolerances allowed in the machinery of the matching parts were merciless.

Responding to the stringent technological demands was not something new to Grumman. Out of these plant doors had rolled the planes that destroyed the Japanese Navy in World War II, and some of the men and women who had built them were still working there. Although the Grumman people had a sense of the history that existed throughout the plant, it did not often manifest itself in their workaday conversations. In the cafeteria at lunchtime, or over drinks at a nearby bar, we didn’t discuss the LEM any more than the other projects Grumman had going at the time. The main topics of conversation were much more likely to be the Grumman bowling league or a professional baseball team that could contrive to finish a season with a record of 50 wins and 112 losses, which is what the New York Mets managed to do while finishing last in the National League in 1965.

Despite the lack of visible evidence that those working on the LEM project thought of themselves as part of history in the making, I’d have to venture a guess that from time to time it came to almost all of us that we were. For me, it came four years later. As I watched those television pictures, my part in this whole scenario took on a tangibility that had never projected itself from the drawing board. Before Armstrong could set foot on the moon and declare, “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind,” he first had to crawl through the LEM’s exit hatch and descend a ladder to the lunar surface. That hatchway opening measured exactly 32.576 inches in diameter. The reason I know the exact size of that hatchway is that I was the draftsman who drew it. (I came across a copy of that drawing quite by chance recently while rummaging through the attic trying to find my old bowling ball, which my wife swears she did not throw out or give away.)

From the drawing was fabricated the hatchway that was to become man’s egress to the moon, but to me and the machinists who fashioned it, it was simply Part No. LOW280M1038, Code Ident. No. 26512.1 never found my bowling ball, but I did stumble upon my brush with history.