July 23, 2005
Lunar Module Engineer Now Home Inspector
STROUDSBURG, Pa. -- As a longtime engineer for Grumman Corp., Joel Schachter helped design parts for the space vehicle that landed man on the moon. Today, the 65-year-old aerospace expert earns a more down-to-earth living, climbing onto roofs and slithering into crawl spaces as surely the most overqualified home inspector in the Poconos.
Tutoring first-time home buyers on the finer points of furnaces, roofs and septic systems might seem a bit of a comedown after spending more than 30 years on the cutting edge of science, but Schachter doesn't see it that way.
"I find that I love explaining to people how things work," says Schachter, whose beard, ponytail and work jeans would have been inconceivable at Grumman, where the standard attire 40 years ago was a white dress shirt, tie and navy blue or gray dress pants.
Schachter never tells clients of his past, and they have little reason to ask.
When Ann and Mark Khan, of New York City, hired Schachter to inspect a 20-year-old Colonial in the heart of the Poconos, they spent hours by his side as he meticulously combed the house for potential defects. "This is the wrong outlet ... Both of these doors should be steel ... That roof should last 30 years," he told them.
The couple had no clue that their big new purchase was being given the once-over by a guy who used to fret over the smallest details of the Lunar Excursion Module, the famed Eagle that landed July 20, 1969.
"That's my home inspector?" Mark Khan said, incredulously, when told of Schachter's prior job. "That's awesome! When I get home tonight I'm gonna Google him."
Schachter would probably still be working at Grumman but for the end of the Cold War, which brought deep cutbacks in defense spending. After the Pentagon canceled production of Grumman's F-14 Tomcat, the aerospace giant began laying off tens of thousands of workers. Schachter got his pink slip in 1994, around the time that Grumman was bought by Northrop Corp.
So he joined the thousands of New York and New Jersey residents who moved to eastern Pennsylvania in recent years for its lower cost of living and proximity to the city. Schachter now conducts well over 100 home inspections in the Poconos each year, and a lesser number in New York and Connecticut. Ninety percent of his buyers are from New York and New Jersey.
The Bronx-born engineer, who still maintains an apartment in Manhattan, concedes that moving to the sleepy Poconos was somewhat of a culture shock. "As a New Yorker, you hate to wait on line. Everything here is so leisurely and so much slower," he says.
Schachter joined Long Island-based Grumman in the early 1960s, having just received a mechanical engineering degree from the City University of New York. It was a heady time for aerospace: President Kennedy had challenged NASA to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and Grumman had won the contract to build the lunar lander. At stake was America's position in the space race.
Schachter's team designed several components of the Lunar Excursion Module, or LEM, including the footpads, a mechanism that opened its spindly legs, and the ladder astronaut Neil Armstrong descended before taking his "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
At the time, tens of thousands of Grumman employees toiled on the moon program, many of them working nights and weekends to achieve the monumental goals that NASA had laid out for them. The company was like family: There was a gigantic picnic on Long Island each summer; car pools sometimes lasted 20 or 30 years; it wasn't unusual for people to work at Grumman into their 70s.
John Leoniak, who trained Schachter and worked closely with him on the moon program, says Grumman people knew that they were making history - but didn't much talk about it. "The most important part of the job was to get the job done correctly," he says.
For Schachter, "there was no such thing as being overwhelmed. Nothing was too hard," Leoniak says.
Schachter watched the moon landing at home in Long Island, but he wasn't particularly nervous. There were so many safeguards in place that failure was simply inconceivable, he says.
"It was the thrill of a lifetime," he says. "I don't think anything could match it."
The moon program was only the beginning of Schachter's exploits at Grumman. In the 1970s, he worked on a highly classified military satellite that he still won't talk about. Then he spent the next 20 years working on mechanical systems for the sleek F-14 fighter jet.
Schachter loves reminiscing about those days. But he is just as happy talking caulking - and with the Poconos development boom showing no signs of slowing down, the home inspection business is better than ever.
"Every home inspection, you learn something new," he says. "It's almost like a Sherlock Holmes thing. I like looking at what went wrong, why it went wrong, how do you fix it."