Destination Moon Draws Visitors into Its Orbit

Anyone who was a kid or older in 1969 is likely to know exactly where they were when astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins made history with the first moon landing.  Most of the world was glued to a television set or, in some cases, a radio, to watch and listen that day as Armstrong and Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon’s surface.

Like many Americans, I was fascinated by the “space exploration race.” The astronauts were national heroes who captured the imaginations and dreams of millions. I remember how excited I was to hear astronaut Gordon Cooper, who flew in the last Mercury mission, address the Professional Photographers of America at a convention in Chicago.  He was the size of my finger from my balcony seat but his presence filled the vast auditorium.

Taken with my Brownie camera, Mercury and Gemini astronaut Gordon Cooper speaks to photographers assembled at the Professional Photographers of America convention in Chicago. The image is grainy. My arrow indicates Cooper.

My brothers and I launched rocket after rocket into space from our Cape Canaveral set.  We transformed the shower stall in one of our bathrooms into a space capsule to simulate adventures to the stars.  The “astronaut” lay with their back on the shower floor, feet up against the shower wall and communicated via walkie-talkie radio to mission control located just outside the bathroom door.  We flew many imaginary missions to and from the outer reaches of our galaxy on those Saturday afternoons.

In junior high school, I was selected, maybe because I was a reporter on the school newspaper, to take part in a special science assembly with a guest speaker.  I don’t recall  who the presenter was but I was asked to don a spacesuit, crawl into a mock-up Mercury capsule while sitting onstage and clicking a switch every few seconds that turned on and off a red light atop the capsule.  The demonstration pointed out how easy and quickly we can lose our sense of time.  I didn’t do well as a test subject but I was thrilled at putting on that spacesuit and being an astronaut  for the experiment.

Years later, when working for TIME Magazine, I joined the entire Los Angeles bureau at Edwards Air Force Base to watch one of the Discovery Space Shuttles land.  (Story for another blog post.)

A view of the Columbia command module through the hatch window. The hatch has been removed from the capsule so that visitors can see its inside design. The lever on the left was added as an escape measure after the tragedy that killed the three Apollo astronauts of 1967.

So naturally, when I learned that Seattle’s Museum of Flight was presenting the exhibit, Destination Moon in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution to mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, I was determined to go.  The exhibit, which opened in April and will close Sept. 2, is its only West Coast appearance.  While relatively small in size, the exhibit displays 20 artifacts from the Smithsonian, many of them from that historic moon landing mission, as well as several other objects from the Seattle museum’s own extensive collection.

The Saturn V rocket’s F-1 engines were the most powerful ever built. These components were salvaged from the ocean floor and are now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

My husband and I entered at our assigned time yesterday and wound our way through the items, stopping to read each description.  Among the artifacts are a restored console from NASA’s mission control.  The buttons and monitors look primitive compared to today’s computer systems.  I chuckled overhearing one young man explaining to his young female companion that the rotary dials on the panel weren’t for phoning “your grandmother.”

My husband who is six-foot, four-inches tall stands next to one of the spacesuits on display at the Destination Moon exhibit. You can see for yourself the difference in size. He never would have qualified for an astronaut!

I was also struck by the various ‘spacesuits’ on view and the smallness of their size.  Although the personas of these early space pioneers were gigantic, in reality, they were not large men.  Most, if not all, had been fighter pilots, and physically had to fit into the tight, compact cockpits of both the fighter planes and the cramped quarters of the early space capsules.  Some of the suits resembled expensive homemade costumes, and, in some ways they were.  For instance, ordinary blue rickrack was stitched to finish off the suits’ hose attachment openings.  This little touch must have made some of the women who sewed them smile.

You can see here a detail of the decorative rickrack used to trim the head opening of the spacesuit. The exhibit lighting made it next to impossible to photography objects in the display cases without reflection.

Also fascinating are the mangled F-1 engine sections of the Saturn V rocket, the only parts to ever have been recovered.  The components were found and lifted from the bottom of the Atlantic a few years ago in a project financed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.  After  restoration at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas, the surviving pieces were sent to Seattle’s museum and the Smithsonian where they will remain on permanent display after the Destination Moon exhibit closes.

Of course the centerpiece of the Seattle exhibit is the conical-shaped Columbia command module from the Apollo 11 mission.  Again most striking is its size, so small compared to the enormous space shuttles used today.  It’s mind-boggling how three men traveled to the moon and back in this compact capsule.  I missed the 3-D interactive tour of the capsule’s interior but just being within arm’s reach of this historic vessel was overpowering.

The Columbia command module was the centerpiece of the exhibit. In the background you can see the video of the rescue of the astronauts from the space capsule after landing in the ocean.

So too were the gloves and helmet with its gold visor worn by Aldrin and that reflected Armstrong’s image in the now iconic photo of Armstrong standing on the moon. I attempted to preserve the moment with a photo reflecting back my own image.  Mine didn’t turn out nearly as well as Aldrin’s. Amazing too is the fact that on that mission, and others, the astronauts used Hasselblad cameras and film as digital cameras were yet to be invented. (More about the equipment used can be found here. )

The famous gold visor and gloves of astronaut Buzz Aldrin worn on the moon are displayed in the exhibit.

One of the moon “rocks” returned by the Apollo astronauts can also be seen in the exhibit.  Surprising to me was how many people simply passed by without stopping to wonder at how far away this rough, gray, volcanic-looking stone came to end up here on earth.  Perhaps this is an indication too at how much we now take for granted travel into space.

The moon rock on display in Seattle came a long ways to be seen.

At the time of the Apollo missions, space exploration was still an incredible phenomena.  According to the exhibit information, NASA’s space program at its height employed 400,000 people.  It embodied the vision, ingenuity and skills of people at all levels.  It gave Americans a unifying reason to be proud of its country at a time when the VietNam War was tearing them apart.  And it gave the world a challenge that remains relevant today–to create a single event that can bring people together for the greater good.  It was indeed a small step for man but a giant leap for mankind.

Outside the exhibit, visitors, like myself, can take their own ‘moon’ photo as did Neil Armstrong.

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