HOUSTON—After carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon in 1969, the Apollo 11 command module splashed into the Pacific Ocean. The spacecraft then returned to Houston with the astronauts before embarking on a tour to all 50 states in 1970 and 1971. An estimated three million people visited the spacecraft along the way as it stopped in one city per state, usually the capital.
Following that tour, the historic capsule was installed at Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, and it remained there as one of the institution’s most prized artifacts. Now, finally, the 3.9-meter wide spacecraft is going on tour again. It won’t be visiting all 50 states but instead a select few cities—Houston, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and, lastly, for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing in 2019, Seattle. The latter city gets the honor because Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is among those underwriting the tour.
The capsule makes its first public appearance on Saturday, October 14 at Space Center Houston. During a media preview, we got a look at the exhibit, which will let visitors get a little more than an arm’s length away from the capsule. This close, we could see how hard the return trip through the atmosphere was on the spacecraft’s heat shield, as well as the wear and tear from the reaction control system thrusters. The capsule is indeed an iconic sight to behold, and it looks all the better for a thorough cleaning and conservation effort before the tour began.
During its engagement until March 2018 at the visitor’s center near Johnson Space Center, space buffs can see both the Apollo 11 capsule and, in a nearby exhibit, the Apollo 17 capsule. Both vehicles have launched to the Moon and back and appear similar. “This is an opportunity to see the historic bookends of the Apollo program,” said William Harris, president and chief executive of Space Center Houston.
Other intriguing objects in the “Destination Moon” exhibit include the visor and gloves Aldrin wore on the Moon’s surface, a shiny lunar sample return container, Michael Collins’ Omega Speedmaster watch, and more. A 3D tour of the spacecraft also highlights graffiti left inside the “Columbia” module by the astronauts. There is also a Moon rock, of course.
This four-city tour, coming on the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Moon landings, is a welcome addition to efforts to highlight the amazing things humans can do in space with clear goals and the funding to accomplish them. In the coming months, Ars will launch its own ambitious series to commemorate the Apollo program, from its successes and travails, to a legacy that reverberates even today in the spaceflight community.
Listing image by Lee Hutchinson