Planetary Sciences News

Apollo 11 Command Module Goes on Tour

The exhibit includes Buzz Aldrin's gloves and an injector plate from the rocket's first-stage engine, which was recovered from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

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Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins in front of the command module at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Credit: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

For William Harris, president and CEO of Space Center Houston, watching the Moon and stars was a big part of his growing up in rural Greenfield, Mass. As an inquisitive four-year-old back in July 1969, Harris remembers huddling with his family in front of a big, boxy, black-and-white television as NASA’s Apollo 11 lunar module Eagle landed on the Moon and as astronauts stepped onto its surface. His parents made sure that Harris and his siblings knew “this is history we’re watching,” he told Eos.

Now some of that history is on its way to his museum.

A Four-City Tour

Space Center Houston will be the first stop on a four-city tour of the Apollo 11 command module Columbia that carried the astronauts back to Earth, the Smithsonian Institution announced at a briefing on Wednesday. The module will arrive at the museum, along with more than 20 mission artifacts, in an exhibit titled Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission on 24 October. That’s just in time to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the center, a Smithsonian Affiliate that opened its doors on 16 October 1992 and already displays some other national treasures, including the command module for Apollo 17, the last mission to land astronauts on the Moon.

The gloves that Buzz Aldrin wore outside the lunar module.
The gloves that Buzz Aldrin wore outside the lunar module. Credit: Photo by Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

This marks the first time in 46 years that the Apollo 11 module is leaving the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM), officials from the museum said at the briefing held at the museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. The module that carried astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins back to Earth has been displayed at the museum’s Washington, D. C., location since 1976. It is temporarily in the Udvar-Hazy Center’s restoration hangar in preparation for the tour that celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing. The module, which FedEx will transport on the museum tour, previously traveled on a 50-state tour in 1970 and 1971 before it entered the NASM collection.

After Houston, the Apollo 11 module touches down at other Smithsonian Affiliates—the Saint Louis Science Center in Missouri; the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pa.; and the Museum of Flight in Seattle—before returning to the NASM in Washington, D. C., as a centerpiece in a new Destination Moon exhibit that will open in 2020.

Star chart showing the position of the Sun, Moon, and stars at the time Apollo 11 was scheduled to leave Earth orbit and head for the Moon. Credit: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Museum

In addition to the module itself, the traveling exhibition includes a lunar sample return container used to carry Moon rock samples back to Earth; the star chart that shows the positions of the Sun, Moon, and stars at the time Apollo 11 was schedule to go to the Moon; Aldrin’s gloves; and an Apollo 11 F-1 injector plate, part of Apollo 11’s first-stage engine, that was recovered from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in 2013. The exhibit also includes an interactive 3-D tour, made from high-resolution scans of the spacecraft in 2016, that allows visitors to virtually explore the spacecraft, including its interior.

Designing the Exhibit

Apollo 11 command module Columbia resting on a temporary cradle.
Apollo 11 command module Columbia resting on a temporary cradle. Credit: Photo by Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Michael Neufeld, senior curator for space history at NASM, told Eos that the traveling exhibit and the follow-on main exhibit back at the Smithsonian face a big challenge that didn’t exist when the Apollo exhibit opened in the 1970s. “No one under 50 remembers the Moon landing,” said Neufeld. “It’s not a personal experience” like it was back then.

Neufeld, who describes himself as “a total space buff,” was 18 years old at the time of the Apollo 11 mission. He was glued to a television set in his best friend’s house in Calgary, Canada, watching the news about the mission, including the nerve-racking landing as fuel dwindled and the subsequent Moon walk.

He said that the designers of the new exhibit, for which he is the lead curator, anticipated that now most people have only secondary knowledge about the Moon landing. The exhibit puts the Apollo missions in a broader historical context that includes President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 goal to send an astronaut to the Moon and back by the end of that decade and the efforts to conquer space during the Cold War with Russia.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin walks on the surface of the Moon near the leg of the lunar module Eagle.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin walks on the surface of the Moon near the leg of the lunar module Eagle during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity. Credit: Photo courtesy of NASA

The spacecraft represents “a great accomplishment,” said Neufeld. “People remember that and they think about that: Can we do something like that again?” he said.

NASM director John Dailey said he hopes that the upcoming tour of the spacecraft generates a lot of excitement. Last week, Bao Bao, a panda that had been at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D. C., “left via Federal Express for China. It was on all the major networks. Got good coverage. This is the capsule that went to the Moon. I would hope that at least we get similar coverage for its departure.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Correction, 27 February 2017: An earlier version of this article misstated the year Apollo 11 landed on the Moon,  as well as a recent date. The article has been corrected.

Citation: Showstack, R. (2017), Apollo 11 command module goes on tour, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO068685. Published on 27 February 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0