Moon shot: Recalling the bid that changed Long Island

Technically speaking: As important as any engineer, then-Grumman Technical Editor Samuel Koeppel played a pivotal role in bringing the lucrative Lunar Module project to Long Island.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

On an island populated by Mets, Jets and Knicks fans, it can be easy to forget what winning feels like – and with constant chatter about creating an “economic identity” for Long Island, it’s somewhat surprising to remember that it actually happened once.

But it did. When the Bethpage-based Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp. (now part of Northrop Grumman) won a 1962 National Aeronautics and Space Administration contract to design and construct a Lunar Excursion Module for the moon-or-bust Apollo Program, Long Island became an air-and-space focal point – a vital hub of next-generation tech, with the nation and the whole world watching.

Samuel Koeppel was there – for then-Grumman President Clint Towl’s exciting announcement of the winning contract, for the unbridled response among Grumman employees, for the incredible effects Apollo had on the company and the entire Long Island region.

“The day the announcement came through, it was as though you’d won the World Series,” Koeppel told Innovate LI. “It was just an incredible lift.”

Now a docent at Garden City’s Cradle of Aviation Museum, which is marking this July’s 50th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing (and Long Island’s role in it) with a series of star-studded events and commemorations, Koeppel was a technical editor for Grumman at the time, working in the corporation’s Presentation Services Department.

He likened his role to that of a newspaper editor, part of a team of writers and graphic artists producing various publications for internal and external purposes. About 25 people staffed Presentation Services when Koeppel joined the department in 1960; by the time Neil Armstrong strolled around Tranquility Base in 1969, the staff had tripled.

Nailed the landing: The Grumman Lunar Module from the Apollo 16 mission.

The department, specifically Koeppel, would play an integral role in the winning LEM proposal, which ultimately required not only solid science but an impressive bit of semantic sorcery.

Earlier Grumman studies concerning potential manned-spaceflight technologies, along with most studies submitted by rival aerospace companies, had been set aside by NASA. Grumman had already dabbled in satellite and orbital-telescope technologies, but when it came to landing humans safely on the moon, Grumman was as much on the dark side as everyone else.

“There were a lot of ideas for how this was going to be done,” Koeppel noted. “Nobody could really say definitely at any point just what this spacecraft would look like, or what was needed.”

It was only when President John F. Kennedy put a deadline on the moon mission – prioritizing the goal of putting a man on the moon “before this decade is out” in a 1961 speech to Congress – that Grumman’s Lunar Orbit Rendezvous plan gained steam.

“Kennedy triggered a lot of things,” Koeppel recalled. “That fact the he put a date on it convinced some of the people … that this was the best way to do it, and the most assured way of making it before the decade was over.”

Of course, Grumman’s winning bid still had to meet specific submission criteria set forth by NASA. The space agency was accepting what Koeppel dubbed “contract reports” in a very specific format: 50 pages maximum (with typeface no smaller than 10 points) to answer a series of (understandably) thick technological questions.

Headliner: Grumman’s winning bid had immediate and profound regional effects.

NASA had read all of the preliminary reports, Koeppel said, and “knew what they wanted.” The technical editor’s mission was to get it all down in one succinct, convincing bid.

The stakes were high. As part of a consortium led by General Electric, Grumman had already lost out on one Apollo Program bid – the contract to design and build the Command Module, which went to prime contractor North American Aviation (later North American Rockwell and then Rockwell International, which finally dissolved into multiple entities in 2001).

“Grumman knew the lunar module was the jewel in the crown,” Koeppel said. “It was the last big contract available. And they went after it tooth and nail.”

Narrowing down that winning proposal wasn’t easy. Koeppel recalled multiple linotype machines rolling around the clock as he and his team struggled with “ongoing difficulty in narrowing down all of this data and information into correct answers that would mean something.”

When Grumman was ultimately chosen to design and build the LEM – later shortened to just “Lunar Module,” matching the Command and Service modules – Towl issued a statement giving “full credit for this achievement … to the engineering and technical staff who have worked hard on the LEM Proposal.”

The president’s praise was welcomed, Koeppel noted, as was the lucrative $350 million NASA deal – and the effects on Long Island were immediate and profound.

“You can talk about the traffic first,” he said. “When we won the Lunar Module, we had thousands of employees, in the teens. By [1969], we had doubled the size of the company and split it into different divisions.

“The company acquired several offices in a radius around Bethpage and established locations for the new subdivisions,” Koeppel added. “We just grew into a major Long Island operation.”

Grumman, of course, had been a major regional manufacturer before, cranking out fighter planes at the height of World War II. But even those busy days were dwarfed by the gravitas of the Apollo Program, according to Koeppel.

Mod squad: Grumman engineers at work on the Lunar Module, back in the day.

“The World War II effort was large,” he noted. “But here, we were involved in something very different.”

A half-century after the historic moon landings, and some 57 years since he edited that destiny-altering bid into NASA-approved shape, Koeppel – a Cradle of Aviation Museum guide and educator since 2002 – holds tight to several key takeaways.

For the engineers and scientists of Grumman, the era was one of heroism, particularly when the crew of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission returned safely to Earth, thanks in large part to the sturdiness of their Lunar Module.

That particular mission also awarded bragging rights to Grumman engineers, who famously sent a “towing bill” to their North American Aviation counterparts after dragging the Command Module, as well as the Apollo 13 crew, back from the moon.

For Long Island, Koeppel added, you almost can’t calculate the importance of the Lunar Module deal.

“It was a life-changing moment, and you really can’t put any value on it,” Koeppel said. “But you go back in your mind to 1962, and you hear the enthusiasm of the Grumman workers – the cheers that went up when they won that bid.”