Space vets all-go for Cradle of Aviation ‘Countdown’

Walk it off: Apollo 17 Mission Commander Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, takes his lunar stroll in December 1972.

A star-studded crew of cosmic heroes was on board Thursday, when the Cradle of Aviation Museum started the clock on its 18-month-plus “Countdown to Apollo at 50.”

The long-term celebration, featuring new exhibits and educational initiatives at the Garden City museum, leads up to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission – man’s first recorded moon landing, on July 20, 1969.

Long Island, of course, played a vital role in that groundbreaking moonshot and the there-and-back Apollo missions preceding it – contributions that should “inspire future generations,” according to Cradle of Aviation Museum Executive Director Andrew Parton, who called the moon landings “one of the greatest achievements in U.S. history.”

“Long Island’s role in Apollo’s success cannot be denied and must be underscored to our children,” Parton said Wednesday. “We invite everyone to come and celebrate the amazing work accomplished right here on Long Island.”

The Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp. (later Grumman Aerospace Corp.) was the chief government contractor for the Apollo project’s lunar modules. Between 1961 and 1972, Grumman employees based in Bethpage designed, assembled and tested modules that would ultimately land 12 men on the moon (and help rescue the crew of the snake-bit Apollo 13 mission).

One of the grateful souls aboard that death-defying Apollo 13 flight, former U.S. Air Force and U.S. Marine Corp. fighter pilot Fred Haise, was among the special guests joining the museum Thursday at its “Countdown to Apollo at 50” launch event.

Star of the show: LM-13, one of three completed Grumman lunar modules that never made it to the moon.

Haise, the lunar module pilot on the aborted 1970 mission, kicked the tires and lit the fires alongside Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean – the fourth man to walk on the moon – and a trio of Long Islanders who flew space shuttle missions: Mary Cleave of Great Neck (shuttle missions STS-61-B and STS-30), Charlie Camarda of Queens (STS-114) and Bill Shepard of Babylon (STS-27, STS-41, STS-52 and STS-102).

Of this particular crew, Shepard has logged the most spacetime: In addition to his four space shuttle missions, the star-man was aboard the Russian-launched Soyuz TM-31 spacecraft in 2000, when the TM-31 became the first Soyuz ship to dock with the International Space Station.

He then spent 136 consecutive days aboard the station as part of the international Expedition 1 mission, kicking off an uninterrupted human presence on the ISS that continues today.

Those kinds of amazing adventures are reflected in “Countdown to Apollo at 50,” which in addition to new attractions will heavily feature the crown jewel of the Cradle of Aviation Museum’s collection of 75 aircraft and spacecraft: the LM-13, an original lunar module built to fly on the ultimately-canceled Apollo 18 mission.

Two other completed Grumman lunar modules that never made the flight to Earth’s only natural satellite are housed at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum in Washington and NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

That 1973 Apollo 18 mission – scrapped, officially, by budget restraints and technical concerns (conspiracy theorists know better) – and the rest of the Apollo program’s storied history will also play large in numerous school competitions and STEM-curriculum programs (for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) planned with regional schools as part of “Countdown to Apollo at 50.”

Among the planned content are visits from “notable astronauts, scientists and aerospace professionals,” according to the Cradle of Aviation Museum, while the multiyear Countdown program – sponsored in part by the Hampton Bays-based Robert D.L. Gardiner Foundation – will also include content being developed with Hofstra University.

Thursday’s launch event in the museum’s Jet Blue Sky Theater Planetarium also featured former Grumman lunar module engineers and students from South Huntington, North Merrick and Westbury schools.

The museum said it plans to publish an online calendar of “Countdown to Apollo at 50” events beginning in January.