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One small step

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Local man had part in helping put men on the moon 40 years ago

By Tom Wilmoth

Larry Stanecker couldn’t have chosen a better time to go to work for Grumman Aircraft Engineering.

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    Stanecker, who now lives in Goode, took the job with Grumman in 1968 when the company was knee-deep in its efforts to build the lunar landing module, or LEM,  that would help man land for the first time on the moon. A year later that effort would pay off.

    This past week, as NASA celebrated the 40th anniversary of man setting foot on the moon, Stanecker looked back in amazement of that event.

    “I’m in awe,” Stanecker said of landing a man on the moon, adding it was “an accomplishment that is beyond words.”

    Stanecker worked on the project in the quality control engineering department, serving as a liaison between the that department and the design engineers of the landing module. He answered an advertisement in the newspaper for the job located at the plant in Bethpage, N.Y.

    He said Grumman was a good company to work for at the time.

    “You realized you had a stake in the program,” Stanecker said. “You were made to feel you were important."

    Stanecker said the company encouraged suggestions from employees on ways to improve and had a program in place to reward those who did that. Several times he was cited for his suggestions. His biggest contribution was helping design a way to make sure the lunar module was free of antifreeze being used to help test the LEM’s ability to withstand extreme temperatures and its landing capabilities. He received a plaque for that contribution which helped keep the antifreeze from affecting the LEM’s electronics system.

    Stanecker holds a bachelor’s in chemistry from Adelphi College and a master’s in science education from Hofstra University. He had been working for a  plastics  laboratory that made relays for aerospace work prior to going to work for Grumman.

    “It took me a while to get up to speed on how the Apollo program was supposed to work,” Stanecker said. “It was mind boggling.”

    And exciting.

    “I’m in awe of the people who could conceive of that,” he said.

    And having the chance to be a part of it was in a word: “awesome,” he said.

    “Jules Verne could think of this but he didn’t have to ... build it and make it work,” Stanecker said.

    Stanecker said those working on the lunar module program at Grumman enjoyed perks that other parts of the company didn’t.

    “We knew the responsibility (at stake),” he said. “We knew that to put a man on the moon and not bring him back meant so much more than the death of those men. We could not have accepted the fact that we left them there on the moon. We had to make sure that did not happen. It had to work and work flawlessly.”

    And, Stanecker added, “Uncle Sam had big, big pockets then” to supply the funds to get the job done.

    Because of the importance of the program, Stanecker said the employees took pride in their workmanship knowing that was something man had never done before and they were going to be a part of helping make that happen.

    Stanecker said he was home when the Apollo 11 mission placed the first man on the moon on July 20, 1969, when Commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin Eugene "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr.  became the first humans to land on the Moon. He watched the event unfold on a black and white television set at his home.

    Stanecker said Grumman would stop work at the company so employees could watch the launch, landings and returns of future Apollo missions.

    “There was a pride in accomplishment and a pride in workmanship that I don’t think we have today,” he said.

    That was especially true when the lunar module played such an important part in helping the Apollo 13 astronauts return home safely when a fault in the electrical system of one of the Service Module’s oxygen tanks produced an explosion which caused a loss of electrical power and failure of both oxygen tanks. The men never reached the moon via the Lunar Module but it helped sustain the astronauts in a safe return home.

    Stanecker still looks back on his opportunity to work at Grumman with pride.

    “The awe is still there,” he said. “The fact that I played a very, very small part. I was just a little cog in the wheel. ...Maybe that’s what God put me on the Earth for. I made a difference.”

    His days at Grumman, however, would be short lived. The decision was made politically to not send men back to the moon and the program was dropped. Thousands lost their jobs. Stanecker would end up starting his own business. Seventeen years ago he and his wife Arlette found their way to Bedford County.

    Stanecker said plans had been drawn up for future missions by engineers at Grumman, including an effort to colonize the moon. He said scrapping the program was a mistake.

    “We dropped the ball,” Stanecker said. “We had the expertise. We had the facility. ...We let it slip through out fingers.”