As Apollo anniversary nears, mission time at CoA

Stroll of the century: It was 50 years ago this July that Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon -- an event steeped in Long Island history.

Unless you’re hiding under a moon rock, you know that humankind’s first stroll on the lunar surface was 50 years ago this July – and as the golden anniversary approaches, excitement at the Cradle of Aviation Museum is reaching escape velocity.

The Garden City museum’s “Countdown to Apollo at 50” – which kicked off 16 months ago – reaches its climax July 20, the exact date when NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969.

Between now and then, the countdown continues, highlighted by the Apollo at 50 Anniversary Dinner, a star-studded June 6 event scheduled to feature many of the astronauts, flight directors and aircraft engineers of NASA’s historic Apollo program – including Aldrin, who piloted the lunar module that carried himself and Armstrong from the command module Columbia to the Sea of Tranquility.

Then, on July 20, the Cradle of Aviation will hit the thrusters with a full day of anniversary events. The big day blasts off with the Apollo Moon Fest, a family-friendly fair featuring space shuttle astronauts, an IMAX presentation of the NASA documentary “Apollo 11: First Steps,” model rocketry, virtual reality experiences and other museum attractions.

That includes one of the world’s most extensive collections of Apollo program artifacts and equipment, including the LTA-1, the first fully functional lunar module built for testing on Earth. On loan from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, the LTA-1 will be displayed without its outer skin and legs, precisely as it appeared when it was under construction at the then-Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp.’s Bethpage facility.

Giant steps are what you take: NASA astronauts (from left) Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin flew to the moon in July 1969.

Permanently docked at the museum is the LM-13 – a space-ready lunar module intended to carry astronauts to the moon’s Copernicus Crater during 1973’s Apollo 19 mission, which was ultimately scrapped.

Visitors can also check out the original Lunar Module Simulator used to train astronauts at the Kennedy Space Center, hop in a replica of a Gemini Mission capsule, visit a recreation of a Grumman “clean room” and examine multiple objects that have been to the moon, including rocks, spacesuits and lunar module gear.

The countdown concludes during the Apollo at 50 Countdown Celebration, a 1960s-themed champagne dinner with space shuttle astronauts and other NASA and Grumman veterans. The space soiree splashes down with a multimedia “community countdown” leading to the precise moment of Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, which occurred at 10:56 p.m. EDT.

Andrew Parton: Inspirational anniversary.

The pomp, circumstance and phenomenal collection of NASA veterans and memorabilia honors Long Island’s critical role in the moon landings, according to Cradle of Aviation President Andrew Parton, who senses a teaching moment.

For nearly a dozen years at the height of the fabled “space race,” Grumman employees in Bethpage designed and tested the lunar modules that would ultimately land 12 men on the moon (and help save the lives of three others on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission). A half-century later, those feats of aerospace ingenuity deserve recognition – and according to Parton, just might blast Long Island’s next generation of space aces into the final frontier.

“The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 serves as a watershed event for the museum and for Long Island,” Parton said. “We are working diligently to use the anniversary as a tool to inspire a new generation of engineers, technicians and, yes, astronauts.”