From Long Island To The Moon: Bethpage's Historic Role In Space Flight

Jul 18, 2019

Six lunar modules from the Apollo Program still sit on the surface of the moon, each with a name plate: “Made in Bethpage.”

NASA contracted the Long Island-based Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation to build the lunar module. The module had to not just work in space, it had to be habitable for humans. The gold foil around the equipment that most people would recognize played an important role.

Al Contessa was a thermal insulation technician on the program. He still has some of that foil.

“Well, thermal insulation is…here you can hear it crinkling up. It’s multi-layered insulation, they call it MLI.”

Al Contessa holds a piece of MLI he has from his time working at Grumman Corporation in Bethpage.
Credit Jay Shah / WSHU

Credit Jay Shah / WSHU

Contessa says MLI is a thinner version of mylar balloons people use for birthday parties. 

The foil acted as a shield for the module.

“The insulation protected the vehicle, the crew, and the equipment from the harsh conditions of space which was a 500-degree temperature swing, 250 above Fahrenheit and 250 below Farenheit.”

And after the equipment was built, it had to be tested. Long Island was also home to a simulator that made sure the module was up to snuff.

Roger Schaefer, an engineer in that simulation department, worked with mostly analog computers to stress-test every part of the module.

“We’d be flying the mission, somebody hit it with an emergency or a what-if scenario: a jet that doesn’t fire, a descent engine doesn’t gimbel or whatever and then we had to simulate it to see what we could do about coming at it with an alternative to it.”

Schaefer says you can still see the building in Bethpage where they built and tested the module. It’s now a sound stage with a red ball on top of one of its buildings. In the Grumman days, that ball was blue.

Meanwhile, a park in Bethpage has been renamed Apollo Park to honor the community’s contribution to the moon landing.

Grumman retirees and local officials celebrated the anniversary with the park dedication. The entrance at Hickey Boulevard will now be called Lunar Module Way.

Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor Joseph Saladino honored several former Grumman employees who worked on the lunar module.

Grumman built five more lunar modules that traveled to the moon after the trailblazing Apollo 11.