autoevolution
Car video reviews:
 
This Apollo Era Lunar Module Never Made it to the Moon, Stranded In A Museum Instead
Is there anything more tragic than a spacecraft that never makes it to space? A vehicle with every intention of bringing men to worlds beyond but is instead stuck here on Earth, with only us lame humans to gaze at instead of endless moon dust. Well, that's the story of LM-13, the Apollo-era Grumman Lunar Excursion Module that never made it to the Moon.

This Apollo Era Lunar Module Never Made it to the Moon, Stranded In A Museum Instead

Apollo Grumman LEM Cradle of Aviation MuseumApollo Grumman LEM Cradle of Aviation MuseumApollo Grumman LEM Cradle of Aviation MuseumApollo Grumman LEM Cradle of Aviation MuseumApollo Grumman LEM Cradle of Aviation MuseumApollo Grumman LEM Cradle of Aviation MuseumApollo Grumman LEM Cradle of Aviation MuseumApollo Grumman LEM Cradle of Aviation MuseumApollo Grumman LEM Cradle of Aviation MuseumApollo Grumman LEM Cradle of Aviation MuseumApollo Grumman LEM Cradle of Aviation MuseumApollo Grumman LEM Cradle of Aviation MuseumApollo Grumman LEM Cradle of Aviation MuseumApollo Grumman LEM Cradle of Aviation MuseumApollo Grumman LEM Cradle of Aviation MuseumApollo Grumman LEM Cradle of Aviation Museum
Today, LM-13 finds its home inside a museum not quite like any other. A vast two hangar-wide facility on the grounds of the old Mitchell Field Air Force Base in Garden City, New York, called the Cradle of Aviation Museum. A venue dedicated to the achievements in aerospace in New York's Long Island region that gives it the reputation as the original proving grounds of American aviation, if not the site of its first powered flight.

Among the pieces in its significant collection, LM-13 just might be the crown jewel. Its own dedicated section in the museum where folks can appreciate it undistracted by other exhibits is a testament to this notion. For those of you who don't spend their days with their faces buried in history books like some of us do, let's briefly take a look back at how Grumman's Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) came to be.

It took as many as five different redesigns, with countless adjustments made afterward, for the LEM to take the shape it would ultimately become. Under the leadership of Grumman Engineer Thomas J. Kelley, Grumman spent much of the early to mid-1960s figuring out which combination of landing legs, docking ports, ascent/descent engines, and flight computers would be the right fit for America's first foray onto the surface of another celestial body.

Eventually, a three-legged spacecraft with heavy glass windows was replaced by a four-legged folding landing leg unit with smaller windows and a redundant second docking port present on earlier prototypes removed. If you thought power-to-weight ratios were important for sports cars, it was doubly important for a spacecraft meant to land on another world.

As a result, the bulk of the aluminum alloy sheet metal that made up the craft's construction was no thicker than one or two soda cans. Let's just say 1/6th of Earth's gravity does wonders for fighting metal fatigue. It was flimsy, cramped, and looked like an overgrown metalloid amoeba more than it did a functioning space-faring vehicle. But gosh darn it, was it good at its job.

The ascent engine came courtesy of Bell Aerosystems, the same company behind the rocket-powered Bell X-1 and the designer of the rocket engines for the X-15 testing hypersonic test bed. The decent engine came from the famous Rocketdyne corporation, which also built the enormous F-1 engines used in the Saturn V super-heavy launch vehicle that took Apollo to the Moon.

Meanwhile, the LEM's guidance computer was manufactured by Raytheon and sported a processor running at a blistering 2.04 MHz with a RAM capacity that had to be measured in individual words, not bytes, because of how puny its capacity was. Most estimates peg it as being around 2,048 words or a whopping two whole kilobytes.

Comparable to the equivalent Commodore or Apple home computer of the day, but walloped by even the most diminutive and pathetic "smartphones" of 15 years ago. So when people tell you a single modern iOS or Android device could have sent a fleet of Grumman LEMS to the surface of the Moon, it's not entirely hyperbolic. Although, that's hardly an apples-to-apples comparison.

And yet, every time the LEM managed to make it to the Moon without the service module exploding, Grumman's LEM managed to work flawlessly. Puny computing power be darned. LM-13 was intended to operate under the Extended J-class missions category. Meaning it could carry more cargo to the Moon, including but not limited to the Boeing/General Motors Lunar Roving Vehicle, commonly referred to by its nickname, the Moon Buggy.

Though the specific mission attributed to the LM-13 is often flip-flopped between Apollo 18 or 19, museum staff like to say it really could have been used for either mission. After all, by the time it was nearly complete, the Apollo program had already been canceled. Instead, the partially completed LEM spent its days post-Apolo in storage. Coming out for an appearance in the 1998 HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon.

At some point, the spacecraft was acquired by the Cradle of Aviation Museum and restored by its volunteer staff to a seemingly ready-to-fly state. To their credit, the exhibit space intended for LM-13 suits its host perfectly. A mock lunar surface-like floor is accented with a life-like mockup of an Apollo-era space suit.

With a perfect mix of extra dark black paint and appropriate lighting, you can almost place yourself right there on the Moon as Neil Armstrong made his famous steps for man and mankind. Just with a more breathable atmosphere this time around. Above the exhibit, hanging from the ceiling,= is a tiny model of the Service and Command Module to give museum-goers an idea of what it might have looked like to see the craft flying overhead while on the lunar surface.

It's not exactly to perfect scale, but it's a nice touch all the same. A plexiglass barrier is in place to keep any potential wayward toddler with a rebellious streak from climbing up the LEM's fragile ladder, as it would likely crumble to pieces if anyone over the age of five tried to ascend it into the module. Thin metal and full gravity can be a real you-know-what.

Even so, you're still granted access to nearly every nook and cranny of this machine from a vantage point of just a few yards away. Every RCS thruster, foil-covered landing leg, and seemingly every nut and bolt on this LEM's exterior is beautifully displayed in a tasteful and historically accurate fashion befitting of one of the most important vehicles of any kind in human history.

As far as the flagship exhibits are concerned, the Cradle of Aviation has one a fair bit more special than most. Check the gallery above if you want to see more.

 
 
 
 
 

Would you like AUTOEVOLUTION to send you notifications?

You will only receive our top stories