It was July 21, 1969, the day after St. Louisans gathered around their television sets to watch men step onto the moon for the first time. A newspaper vendor at Eighth and Locust streets downtown said he observed something unusual when people bought papers as souvenirs.
“Some people walk up, look at the headlines and seem unable to comprehend them,” he told a Post-Dispatch reporter at the time. “I think it will take us a little time to understand the significance of the moon landing.” ￼
We’ve had nearly five decades to understand. “Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission,” on view Saturday through Sept. 3 at the St. Louis Science Center, will help.
The science center is one of four museums that will host the traveling exhibition by the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
The Apollo 11 command module Columbia, which completed the first mission to land on the moon, will be part of the exhibition.
Other artifacts — used by the Apollo 11 crew of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin — include Aldrin’s helmet and gloves, a star chart, flight plans, a medical kit and the “rock box” used to bring the first samples of the moon back to Earth.
Visitors first will pass through the science center’s own exhibit about St. Louis’ contributions and response to the space program. Then, before picking up entry passes at a ’60s-era ticket booth, they’ll pass replica storefronts, including a newsstand not unlike the ones moonstruck St. Louisans visited in 1969.
“We wanted to set people back in the era and send them back to the ’60s,” says Kristina Hampton, the science center’s collections and projects manager, who put together this part of the exhibit.
She was able to draw from the science center’s extensive collection of space-themed memorabilia, including tin toy space capsules, copies of Life magazine chronicling the space race and a “Countdown to the Moon” board game.
A replica of a ’60s-era living room, ready for a moon-landing watch party, includes a space-age Kuba Komet television console with an angled, wooden sail that looks ready to launch into space itself. The screen displays footage from the moon landing, which visitors can watch from an avocado-green couch. There’s fake food on starburst platters and a burnt-orange ashtray — minus the smoke.
Next, there’s a short film about St. Louis’ role in the space program. In 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, sending Americans scrambling to join the space race.
In 1959, McDonnell Aircraft Corp. (now Boeing, based in Berkeley) announced it had won the government contract to build the Mercury capsule, America’s first manned space vehicle. John Glenn (after Alan Shepard made the first U.S. manned flight) circled the Earth three times in a Mercury capsule. A few months later, McDonnell won the contract to build the two-person Gemini capsule.
The science center already has test capsules of Mercury and Gemini on display at its James S. McDonnell Planetarium, which is named for the company’s founder. With the Apollo 11 command module here, the science center will be one of the few places in the country with craft from all three space programs.
“Everything we learned from Mercury and Gemini helped us get to the moon,” Hampton says.
Another gallery tells personal stories of individual contributions to the space race, including mission control operators and cartographers from the St. Louis-based Aeronautical Chart and Information Center, which later folded into the Defense Mapping Agency.
The ACIC made maps of the moon that were used in the Apollo. Gene “Woody” Woodford, 78, of Manchester, was a physical scientist for the ACIC then and now volunteers in the fossil prep lab at the science center.
Back then, he studied the light reflection off the moon to determine the texture of the moon’s surface. He says the astronauts needed a smooth surface on which to land.
“We all had our part back then,” Woodford says. “You put all these parts together, and we landed 12 men on the moon and got them back safely.”
Visitors will cross a rumbling gantry, as if they were boarding a spacecraft. But this walkway will lead to the Smithsonian portion on the exhibit, which includes the Columbia module, gloves and other items.
Incidentally, this isn’t the module’s first stop in Missouri. But this tour is the first time it has left the Smithsonian since 1971. In 1970, Columbia embarked on a tour of all 50 state capitals, landing a stop in Jefferson City that July.
More than 7,000 people gathered at the Missouri Capitol building to see Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins at ceremonies exactly one year after the moon landing. That August, the capsule made another stop at the Illinois State Fair.
“Its red, white and blue cavalcade became a familiar sight to thousands of motorists and pedestrians in each state,” according to a NASA report about the tour.
This voyage, which started at Space Center Houston in the fall, is much more controlled. The capsule arrived in an unmarked truck from Houston, and only a few people at the St. Louis Science Center knew the exact delivery time. The capsule, considered a national treasure to be protected, was analyzed and conserved before leaving on its tour.
After St. Louis, it will travel to Pittsburgh and Seattle until finally landing in a revamped exhibit space at the National Air and Space Museum.
Of course, visitors won’t be able to climb inside the real thing. After leaving the Smithsonian portion of the exhibit at the science center, visitors can explore a replica of the Columbia and the Lunar Module, named “Eagle,” and experience what it is like to communicate with Mission Control.
There’s also a moon rock from the Apollo 15 mission, on loan from NASA, and a replica of the moon’s surface with life-size cutouts of the astronauts. That’ll make it easier for visitors to picture themselves at the moon landing.
That’s one of the goals, says Christian Greer, the science center’s chief officer of science, education and experience: to spark imaginations and ideas.
He says astronauts often credit childhood experiences at museums and science centers for launching their own exploration careers.
“Wouldn’t that be great,” he says, “if the first person who walked on Mars was a kid who saw this in St. Louis?”
What “Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission” • When Saturday through Sept. 3; hours are 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sunday • Where St. Louis Science Center, 5050 Oakland Avenue • How much Free for members, $10 for nonmembers, $8 for seniors and children • More info 314-289-4400; slsc.org