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40 Years Ago

A lunar module, at a Long Island museum

A lunar module, at a Long Island museum

Amid all the remembrances of the first Moon landing 40 years ago, I find myself wondering once again why I slept through the moon walk. I don’t really have a good answer. I suppose I would have stayed up if anyone else in the house did. I can’t remember where everyone was. I had just finished high school and was commuting from Long Island into the city every day to attend a program at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium. I’d go part way in with my father every day, but he was headed to the lower part of Manhattan (the Meatpacking District) and I was headed to the Upper West Side, so he’d drop me at the subway somewhere along the way and we’d split up. Our joint commute meant we both had to get up early to leave the house, a good reason to sleep. My brother would have just graduated from college and I don’t recall that he was home that summer. My sister was halfway through college, but I don’t remember her being home either.

In any case, whatever the reason, we slept through the night. I didn’t see Neil Armstrong take his initial steps.

But hey, at least I was on Long Island, home of the Apollo Lunar Module, built at nearby Grumman. The NYT has an article today on Long Island’s importance in early aviation and space flight.

American aviation was essentially born on the broad, flat, treeless Hempstead Plains. Long Island was the starting point for the first transcontinental plane flight in 1911. Most famously, in 1927 Charles Lindbergh took off for Paris from Roosevelt Field, which by the 1930s was the largest civilian airfield in America.

Twice in history, the whole world has been totally transfixed by a story of flight — Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, and the Apollo 11 crew’s first walk on the moon. Long Island was central to both of them.

Roosevelt Field is now a shopping mall, and Northrop Grumman, as the manufacturer is now known, has a small operation on Long Island but does most of its work in California or Virginia, or other places far from here. So what replaces Grumman and Republic and the suburban wonks of NASA’s past? Right now, no one is sure.

In some ways, it was inevitable. There are still plenty of high-tech aviation parts and engineering design firms on Long Island, approximately 240 of which produce aircraft parts. But the big manufacturing and fabrication work that once came to Long Island was destined to move to newer areas with more land, cheaper housing and lower living costs. …

NASA was the first great industrial triumph of suburbia. Far removed technologically and culturally from the factories of Detroit, the stockyards of Chicago or the sweatshops of New York, the green industrial campuses of Long Island, Houston and Southern California produced one of history’s crowning achievements.

I wasn’t around yet for Lindbergh. But Roosevelt Field the mall and I grew up together. I can’t imagine life on Long Island without it. And if we get back to the moon in my lifetime, I’ll stay up to watch.

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Categories: History, Technology, Travel
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