It began ¬ an amazing 41 years ago this coming October ¬ with an unwelcome surprise, and culminated in one of the greatest adventures in human history.
But the story of this country's first reach into the cosmos ¬ a story being recounted this week with the beginning of Home Box Office's 12-part epic, From the Earth to the Moon ¬ is more than a saga about daring test pilots stretching the outer limits of our experience.
In a very real sense, and for at least a few nights of the series, it's a remembrance of Long Island's vital contributions to the American space effort. Chief among those contributions was an engineering marvel called the Lunar Module, or LM, for short.
Remembered today by many as the "pride of Long Island," it was crafted over an eight-year period by what was then called the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, of Bethpage, New York.
This past week, Tom Kelly, who grew up in Merrick and served as chief engineer from Grumman on the Lunar Module project, looked back on his participation in a series of events that changed the way we look at the world and look at ourselves.
"While Joe Gavin, of Huntington, was in charge of the whole program, I was in charge of the technical aspects of creating the Lunar Module," Kelly recalled from his Cutchogue home on Monday.
"We actually started looking at creating such a spacecraft way back in 1960, going through a series of proposals and studies before actually winning the contract to build the lunar module in 1962."
Serving as the backdrop for the creation of the Lunar Module here in Nassau County was the Cold War, a war which was more talk and paranoia than anything else until the night of October 4, 1957.
It was on that evening that the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. Hardly had America come to grips with the satellite's constant "blip-blip-blip" across its consciousness, than the Russians launched another spacecraft, Sputnik II, on November 3, 1957.
Even worse for the feeling of national pride was word that the second Soviet ship actually carried a passenger into space, a German Shepherd named Laika.
"At that time I was actually in the Air Force, having worked at Grumman for five years previously, on aircraft-related projects," Kelly said.
"After Sputnik was launched though, everybody was chomping at the bit to get into the space race, and upon my discharge I went to work at Lockheed and got into rocket propulsion.
"Grumman then recruited me back, saying they wanted to establish a space group within the company," the engineer continued.
That "space group" would eventually transform the company, a company that within a decade would re-christen itself "Grumman Aerospace."
Upon his return to the Grumman fold, Kelly moved to Huntington and quickly set to work on the project the United States government hoped would "demonstrate that we really were technically superior to the Russians."
"Needless to say," Kelly added, "we felt a lot of pressure."
According to the engineer, who retired shortly before Grumman was bought by the Northrop Corporation, the engineers working in Bethpage "didn't have a lot of time for philosophy."
"Basically we were all concentrating on achieving a goal. Our motivation was we wanted to get to the moon and we wanted to get their first, before the Russians.
"There really was this sense that we were in a race with the Soviet Union and, after Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's flight in April of 1961, we wanted terribly to offset the tremendous publicity the Soviets had gotten by putting the first man into orbit around the Earth," Kelly said.
"As a result, due in part to outside pressure and also the pressure we were putting on ourselves, we were really under the gun at Grumman, enmeshed as we were in a hard-driven, 24-hour-a-day program for several years."
Though much has been made of the space race of the early 1960s and Kelly attests to the pressures that race brought to bare on local engineers, differences between the two country's programs made it hard to truly judge who was actually "ahead."
The Russians, for instance, for a time had the more powerful rockets, and therefore could launch heavier craft on longer flights ¬ the very reason it got a man in space first.
At the same time, however, the United States from the very beginning led the competition in scientific and technical innovation, launching craft almost from the get-go that had practical applications in the fields of communications, navigation and weather-reporting.
Within that milieu, the Lunar Module was born.
"The module, from the very beginning to its landing on the moon, was always the same in concept, though different, in its final form, in almost every detail from our original conception," Kelly said.
Created to operate only outside of the Earth's atmosphere, the Lunar module was the biggest space vehicle created up to that time. At 23 feet 1 inch tall and 31 feet across at its widest point, it dwarfed the Mercury space capsule that was then ferrying astronauts to and from Earth's orbit, and when loaded with fuel and crew, it was more than 11 times heavier than that single passenger craft.
"The other difference was that while a capsule was a single entity, the module was always conceived of as a two-stage vehicle, comprised of a descent and an ascent stage."
The decent stage, roughly octagonal in shape, consisted of a descent engine, the craft's landing gear, fuels and compartments for scientific equipment.
The ascent stage contained the two-man crew compartment, an engine and fuel that would be relied on to lift them off the surface of the moon, and equipment the astronauts would need to survive on the surface.
"From the start, we knew how the system would operate, how we thought the craft would land, and that the ascent stage would detach from the descent stage and return to the command module. Everything else evolved over the years of planning and construction," Kelly said.
Asked for specifics, the engineer mentioned the weight of the vehicle first. "We thought we could do a vehicle that would weigh around 22,000 pounds," he explained. "But the module actually wound up weighing closer to 32,000 pounds.
"Now, to an engineer, that's a world of difference. Weight was a very critical factor when it came to the lunar module. For every pound of weight that we added, we had to add three pounds of rocket propellant. That's why it was so spindly, and one of the reasons it didn't have any seats for the astronauts to sit in.
"Another reason for the absence of seats was it helped minimize the amount of glass used in the cabin and thereby helped keep the heat down inside the cabin."
While Grumman's engineers were busy trying to create the first craft in history that would land on another world, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration was quickly moving its own program forward, trying to fulfill President John F. Kennedy's ambition of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade and "returning him safely to Earth."
Project Mercury was followed, in 1964, by Project Gemini, which included, for the first time, multiple man crews and greatly extended the amount of time Americans spent in space.
Then on January 27, 1967, just as the country was about to embark on the Apollo program, its mission to the moon, tragedy struck when a launch pad fire at Cape Canaveral killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger Chaffee.
The calamity effectively shut NASA's manned flight program down for 18 months, while scientists sought to determine the cause of the fire ¬ eventually determined to be a spark in a pure oxygen environment ¬ and also to find preventative measures to assure it would never happen again.
A similar review was undertaken by the Grumman team to assure that it too was fire safe.
"[The tragedy] lead to extensive review and substitution of materials used in the cabin of the lunar module," Kelly said. "In fact, I guess you can say that we actually purged a great many materials that were in there because prior to the fire, we had some pretty flammable stuff in there, including nylon and the material that was used to insulate the electrical wiring.
"Yes. It wound up being an almost complete purge and substitution of material and did delay the LM somewhat," Kelly continued. "Because of that, the first real test of the lunar module came in January, 1968. That was an unmanned flight, called Apollo 5, and that craft looked a lot like the real thing."
The first manned test of the module came 14 months later, with the March, 1969 mission of Apollo 9.
"That was Jim McDivitt and Rusty Schweickart [who flew the module for its first real flight], and that was done in Earth orbit.
"It was actually kind of an impressive flight, because they practiced everything about the lunar mission that you could do in Earth orbit and at times the command module, which David Scott was flying, and the module were separated by as much as 110 miles."
Without adding any deliberate drama, Kelly added, "The thing you have to remember about the significance of that flight was that the lunar module could not re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. If it had, it would have burned up. So the crew was really depending on it to work right."
During the Apollo 9 mission, a mission which will be shown in episode five of the HBO series, Kelly and a team of Grumman engineers were close at hand at Mission Control in Houston.
"We were actually right across the hall from the big control room that became so familiar to people who tuned in to watch television coverage of those flights."
Asked whether being at the Johnson Space Center during the flight was a heady experience, Kelly said yes and no.
"You have to remember, we were there to help NASA with any problems that might develop during the course of the mission and monitoring the performance of the craft kept us pretty busy," he said.
All the same, he continued, "Apollo 9 was a real kick for us because the Lunar Module just worked perfectly on its first flight. The only embarrassment was when Jim McDivitt turned on a TV monitor in the LM and showed a few lose nuts and bolts that hadn't been cleaned out of it floating around the cabin."
"Of course, after that, we made very sure to make sure no extraneous materials were left in there."
The next test, and the only one left before NASA would actually attempt to put a man on the moon, was Apollo 10. "On that mission, Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan put the module in a low orbit around the moon, coming as close as 50,000 feet above the surface. In act, they did just about everything but land on the moon, most importantly practicing the rendezvous with the command capsule that had to occur before the crew could come home."
In a bit of comic relief, the crew of Apollo 10, which also included command capsule pilot John Young, had christened the respective crafts "Charlie Brown" and "Snoopy," after the popular comic strip characters.
Despite the levity, the period from May, 26, 1969, when Apollo 10 splashed down, and July 16, 1969, when Apollo 11 lifted off, were nothing if not intense.
"Oh yeah, the pressure just kept building," Kelly remembered. "NASA had all these elaborate simulations before the flight, for which a worldwide communications network had been set up so that all the contractors working on the program ¬ in all more than 400,000 people had a hand in Apollo ¬ could listen in and assist the crew.
"We did those simulations many, many times, and during them, NASA threw one problem after another at the astronauts and at us. By comparison, even despite having so much on the line, the actual flight seemed easy. A few things went wrong, but nothing as diabolical as what they threw at us."
And yet those "few things" that went wrong provided their share of anxious moments. Because of an unexpected amount of boulders the crew discovered on the surface as they approached, Neil Armstrong, who would be the first man to set his feet down on the moon, had to take the module off automatic pilot and manually land it on the lunar surface.
As he did so, a mechanism Kelly described as a "program alarm" went off. "It was an alarm that had to be responded to immediately. You literally had to decide, in seconds, whether it really meant anything or not.
"The thing was, this alarm going off was really a very obscure event. It rarely happened, even in some of the more intense simulations. Fortunately, however, one of our engineers had boned up on this aspect of the LM and determined rather quickly that the landing radar was simply overloaded with data. On his assurances, the astronauts were advised to ignore the warning."
Though one catastrophe seemed to have been averted, still another awaited astronauts Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin as they awaited their rendezvous with destiny.
"Right after the landing, amidst all the excitement, we realized that we might have a terribly serious problem," Kelly said. "While it is somewhat difficult to describe the propulsion system, essentially what it came down to was a system that involved both fuel and helium gas.
"Now, what happened was this: Just after the module reached the surface, the engine was shut down. But when that happened, liquid helium continued to flow longer than it should have, freezing a section of the fuel line at both ends.
"Remember, the engine at this point was still very hot and the heat began to build dramatically in the section of line in which the fuel was trapped. Of course, we had instrumentation on the ground that was providing us with these read-outs. We could see what was happening. The heat ¬ and the pressure ¬ in this one section of plumbing was going up pretty dramatically.
"This had us extremely worried because rocket fuel was a pretty unstable chemical back then. If it heated up too much, it could explode. I can clearly remember Dr. Carl Lowe, the director of the Apollo program for NASA, coming to us and demanding a position on the crisis from Grumman in a manner of minutes. I'll tell you, that led to some hasty conferences behind the scenes."
And that's when Manny Dandritch, Grumman's chief propulsion engineer came up with a novel solution: "burping" the engine.
"What it came down to was having the astronauts flip the engine switch, opening the valve and shutting it again very quickly, to relieve the pressure."
"We actually got as far as briefing the capsule communicator, an astronaut on the ground who was the only person who could directly communicate with the crew, on how to do it, but just then, the ice plug melted, the pressure was relieved, and the problem went away as quickly as it developed.
"It probably all transpired in just 10 minutes, but we really sweated it," Kelly continued.
In all, NASA completed six successful lunar missions, and then, of course, there was the famously ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, during which the lunar module became something of a life raft for the crew.
All these years later, Kelly said, he's finally gotten a chance to reflect on what it all meant.
"We all knew that we were involved in something historic and outrageously audacious," he said. "I mean, even the guy sweeping the floor at Grumman felt it. The motivation to accomplish this was incredible. Each of the people involved wanted to be sure that their little contribution worked exactly as had been intended.
"So while I've said how busy we all were, there was also this overriding sense of history and that we were a part of a great adventure. That's what made it just so absolutely special, and I think the HBO series really captures it."
It's a sense of adventure, however, that appears notably absent in a world where the headlines are dominated by the likes of Monica Lewinsky and El Nino. Today, with the Space Shuttle lifting off and landing of its own accord with increasing frequency, many people have begun to take the space program for granted in a way that would have been inconceivable to the Grumman engineers of 30 years ago.
"The repetition of the orbital missions has made space travel seem more routine, but I think [the public's attitude toward NASA] mainly stems from the nature of our recent missions.
"The exploration missions have been robotic in recent years and not human," Kelly said, offering his own take on the situation. "There are some wonderful and exciting missions going on ¬ the pathfinder mission to Mars last summer being just one example ¬ but for some reason, these things don't get people in the gut unless there are people up there, exploring, discovering and putting themselves at risk.
"You know, looking back 30 years in hindsight, the exploration of space has totally changed our world, our world view, and certainly, our technology. It's changed our view of who we are, where we are, and what our possibilities are. We knew it was historic, but when all was said and done, the idea of beating the Russians was the least important part of it. The truly important thing was to get out among the stars and explore the universe.
"I firmly believe that all you have to do is have a manned mission to Mars or a colonization of the moon and people will get excited about it again," Kelly said.