First, the moon. Soon, St. Louis.
The Apollo 11 command module, which completed the first mission to land a man on the moon, will travel to the St. Louis Science Center in a special exhibit from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, officials announced Wednesday.
The science center is one of four museums nationwide to host the exhibit, called “Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission.” It will arrive April 14, 2018, and be on view in the Boeing Hall through Sept. 3, 2018. The hall is named for the aerospace giant that now owns North American Aviation Inc., the company that made the module.
“It’s historic, it’s nostalgic, it’s American, it’s science and it’s special,” said Bert Vescolani, president and CEO of the science center. “I see this as one of those really cool opportunities that we don’t have very often, where a grandparent can stand in front of an object and tell their grandkids their perspective.”
The exhibit will include other items used by the Apollo 11 crew — Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. It includes an outer helmet Aldrin wore while he walked on the moon’s surface, his gloves, flight plans, a star chart, a medical kit and a “rock box” used to bring the very first samples of the moon back to Earth.
It will also include videos and interactive displays to help visitors learn more about the historic journey. That will include an interactive 3-D tour of the command module Columbia, including the inside, previously unseen by the public. Columbia is the only part of the Apollo 11 spacecraft to return to Earth in one piece, and it served as the living quarters for the crew during most of the eight-day mission in July 1969.
Collins remained inside Columbia to orbit and photograph the moon while Aldrin and Armstrong descended to the moon in the lunar module Eagle. Columbia then carried the crew, equipment and moon samples back to Earth, landing just southwest of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.
Columbia toured all 50 states before arriving at the Smithsonian in Washington in 1971. This is the first time in 46 years that the module has left the museum. After the current tour, the artifacts will return to the Smithsonian for a new exhibition, also called “Destination Moon,” which opens in 2020.
The St. Louis Science Center will add its own touches to the exhibit, because McDonnell-Douglas was a leader in developing technology for the Apollo and Mercury missions. The institution already has two Mercury and Gemini capsules on display and will seek other St. Louis connections to the Apollo 11 mission. The capsule will help tell the story of the people involved in the space race and the work involved to get it on the moon, Vescolani said.
Getting the “Destination Moon” exhibition was a pleasant surprise, something the center didn’t have to lobby for, Vescolani said. The science center became a Smithsonian affiliate about a year and a half ago. “We had no idea it would lead to something of this scale,” he said.
The center gets just under 1 million visitors each year. The exhibit is going to Houston first, then St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Seattle.
Conservators are just beginning their work on the module before it leaves for the tour, from working on synthetic seat covers to the gold-plated wastewater dump vents.
Much of the work happens away from the module, with conservators using 3-D imaging to survey the spacecraft and plan restorations.
“It’s like accessing King Tut’s tomb,” said Lisa Young, a conservator leading the module’s restoration, at the exhibition announcement Wednesday morning in Washington. “We’re breathing in there, and we could contaminate something ourselves. So we have to be very careful.”
A heat shield presents one of the biggest dilemmas. Conservators want to maintain the charred look it took from orbital re-entry, but the material has begun naturally disintegrating as well. Each cell in the heat shield’s honeycomb demands individual study and treatment. Unablated and ablated heat shield samples will travel with the exhibition.
Adam Aton of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
Editor's note: a previous version of the story stated the incorrect length of time of the mission.
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