Moonshot: The men who helped build the lunar module

Fifty years ago this July, the entire world held its breath; captivated by what was perhaps the most watched first steps in human history.

"That's one small step for man," astronaut Neil Armstrong announced, "one giant leap for mankind."

Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land and walk on the surface of the moon.

But this isn't a story about what they did that night in 19609. This is a story about the spaceship that brought them there.

When Armstrong called back to Houston announcing, "The Eagle has landed," the Eagle he was talking about was the Lunar Module, or LM for short.

On July 20, 1969, LM-5 on Apollo 11 brought two American astronauts from Lunar orbit—where command module pilot Michael Collins was waiting—down to the surface of the moon for about 21 and a half hours and back again.

"Roger, Tranquility, we copy you on the ground," Mission Control in Houston told Armstrong upon hearing news that the Eagle had landed. "You've got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again."

An estimated 530 million people witnessed that moment across the globe. Even though he wasn't in Houston, Mike Lisa was probably just as blue.

"I was a mess," Lisa said. "I'm saying, 'Jeepers, is this thing going to make it? Is it going to land? Is it going to fall apart? Are these guys—are they going to be alright?"

Lisa was an environmental test engineer on the massive team that built the LM: a true-blue spaceship, the only one ever to take humans from space to another world.

"When I finally got in there and they told me I'd be working on the LM, it all finally came together," Lisa said. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh—you mean I'm going to be working on this thing that goes to another planet?'"

That 'thing' was proudly made on Long Island by Grumman Corporation. So proud that the company took out full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post six days after the moon landing to tout its accomplishment. It got the contract in 1962, at a time when not a lot was known about space travel.

"All we had done was successfully shot a man up into space and brought him back down with the Mercury program," Sam Koeppel, a technical editor on the program, told us. "And it was going to be a long way from the Mercury capsule to going a quarter of a million miles to the moon and returning astronauts safely to Earth."

So the race was on, challenged by President Kennedy to get to the moon by the end of the decade, and the Apollo program needed its lunar lander.

Teams of engineers and workers built the LM on Long Island, basically by hand, working out the kinks as they went along.

"We would take that thing, that device, that component down to the machine shop and tell the guys, 'You need to mill out a new piece. Make it this way or that way or whatever else,'" Lisa said. "They would put it together and bring it back to us the following day and we'd re-test it. And if it broke you sent it back. And you did that until you got it right."

Most of the work took place in Building 5 on the Grumman lot in Bethpage.

At the time, it was a clean room with the sanitary conditions of a hospital operating room. Grumman has since sold the property. It is now part of Grumman Studios, where movies and TV shows are shot.

"We didn't know what the environment was like on the moon so we didn't want to contaminate anything," Ross Bracco said. He was a structural designer on the ascent stage of the LM—the part that blasted the astronauts off the moon and back into orbit.

"If you went into the clean room, you had to walk through a tunnel," Bracco said. "The tunnel had a big bag around it and there was a heavy vacuum that would suck all the lint of your clothing."

Inside, people like Al Contessa, a thermal insulation technician, got to work.

"Yeah right, who thinks of becoming a thermal insulation guy?" He joked. "We had never even heard of it."

Contessa was responsible for installing that crucial gold foil that covers most of the LM. It's called Mylar and it protected the astronauts inside from the harsh environment of space outside.

But working on a moon ship was kind of a happy accident. Contessa applied to Grumman off the street and was hired as a cable manufacturer. He said it was so boring that he actually put in his two weeks' notice to leave Grumman. But on the day he was supposed to leave, he changed his mind and asked to stay.

"So they put me in the upholstery stop," he said.

He and another reassigned friend didn't know Grumman had an upholstery shop.

"We walk into a clean room and see people in smocks and gloves, crinkling up this material and we both looked at each other and said, 'What the heck is this kind of place?' We had no idea," Contessa said. "We were getting ready to walk to the door and lead man came up to us and said, 'Guys, this is not a bad job. Give it a chance.'"

He gave it a chance and was on the Apollo 11 launch pad a month before the launch to install extra insulation in case Neil Armstrong decided to hover around the moon and find a better spot before landing.

"A caged elevator, and you just start the journey going up," Contessa said. "As soon as you leave the ground it gets cooler, and you're looking at this monstrous white cylinder—a behemoth as we called it—and it was just an amazing experience to look at this thing as you go up."

And then came the thorny question of the LM itself: What does it look like? It's not exactly the handsome twin—or even distant relative—of the spaceships that Hollywood has drawn up like the Millennium Falcon or U.S.S. Enterprise.

At the time, the New York Times described it as, "ungainly but efficient."

"They referred to it like a bug," Bracco said. "The LM was not aerodynamic. It didn't need to be because it was not exposed until you got into the vacuum of space."

Koeppel agreed.

"A bug was probably the unanimous choice of everyone, eventually that's how you'd refer to it very often," Koeppel said.

Contessa said it looked like a wrinkled sheet.

"And people who first see it, you can see they look at it and they probably say, 'My God, this is a spaceship? People went to the moon in that?' Contessa said. "But it's an acquired taste."

That acquired taste had an impeccable record of success. Every single LM built for the Apollo missions did their job perfectly. One even went above and beyond, acting as a lifeboat for three astronauts during the Apollo 13 near-disaster.

Lisa, Bracco, Koeppel, and Contessa all now work at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City where they share their stories in front of one of only three Lunar Modules left on earth that were designed to go to the moon. The museum's curator, Josh Stoff, called it one of the most important machines ever built by man.

"It's the only machine built that's taken humans from one world to another," Stoff said. "Was never done before has never been done since then."

Now, 50 years after LM-5 touched down and a lifetime since they worked on building it, mankind's giant leap still doesn't feel that far away.

"You talk about it every day, but with this 50th coming up, I feel like I'm punching in at Grumman," Lisa said. "I bought myself a telescope and I do look up at that moon. And I say to myself, 'Wow, I can't believe I actually had something to do with this large piece of history.' You know, it's incredible."