From the personal through the international, history operates on manifold levels, but this Saturday, the Saint Louis Science Center welcomes a historical exhibition of planetary significance.
“Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission,” the ticketed exhibition in question, runs from April 14 to Sept. 3, commemorating the United States’ visionary efforts to transport astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins safely to and from the moon – efforts that culminated with Armstrong’s “one small step” onto the lunar surface on July 21, 1969.
Originating from a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) and the National Air and Space Museum – both units of the Smithsonian Institution, the nation’s preeminent general cultural treasury – “Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission” includes more than 20 artifacts, many of which were involved in the mission, among them:
- Almost unimaginably, the Columbia, the mission’s command module, a construct so scarily complex it still looks futuristic, if in a Brutalistic way.
- A chart mapping the starscape at the time the astronauts exited Earth’s orbit for Luna, its black expanses suggesting the bleak journey facing Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins.
- The protective outer helmet Aldrin wore over his clear pressure-bubble helmet on lunar walks.
- Aldrin’s gloves, worn during extravehicular duties and constructed largely of a fabric woven from chromium-nickel thread to prevent potentially fatal air leaks caused by handling sharp objects.
Of 200-plus Smithsonian Affiliate organizations, Kathrin Halpern, project director at SITES, explains what led the Smithsonian to choose St. Louis’ institution as one of just four to host “Destination Moon.”
“In developing the tour, we at the Smithsonian endeavored to reach as many different regions of the country as possible in the available window of time,” she states from the nation’s capital. “Traveling objects such as the Apollo 11 command module require many special considerations.” Those considerations greatly winnowed the list of candidates to host the exhibition.
Halpern otherwise dubs the local institution “one of the leading science museums in the country,” mentioning its skilled, professional staff, strong reputation for educational programming and community ties to the early space program, “including the work done by the McDonnell Aircraft Corp. and other companies that contracted with NASA.”
“Destination Moon” first visited Space Center Houston, appropriately enough; after St. Louis, the exhibition will travel to the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh and ultimately grace The Museum of Flight in Seattle.
Bert Vescolani, president and CEO of the local institution, seems more than pleased at the Smithsonian’s choice of cities. “We’re honored and privileged to be selected to receive this prestigious exhibition, not only for the science center, but because it places St. Louis’ contributions to space and flight in the national spotlight,” he says.
“Bringing some of the most cherished items in the Smithsonian’s collection to St. Louis is exciting for the region and provides a once-in-a-lifetime chance to many around the region to see these precious artifacts.”
Initial SITES discussions about the exhibition began in 2014, Halpern relates, noting that preparations for it demanded considerable time and effort. Local preparations proved equally exacting, according to Vescolani.
“The ‘Destination Moon’ exhibition from the Smithsonian is about 5,000 square feet, and we have augmented the experience with 8,000 square feet of interactive exhibits,” he says.
“Through the augmentation, guests will feel transported back to the 1960s, including a living room with artifacts from our collection set up to re-create a lunar landing watch party. Visitors will also have the chance to perform a moon landing on a video game, climb into a re-creation of the command module and lunar module, as well as create their own mission patches.”
Following the celebrations for the 2019 golden anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, Halpern says, the exhibition’s artifacts will return to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum for placement in a newly constructed gallery.
She also provides details on dealing with the logistics of what Vescolani cites as his personal highlight of the exhibition.
“The command module Columbia on its transport ring weighs over 13,500 pounds, plus the heavy equipment needed to move it,” Halpern says. “It’s also oversized in height and width.
“Museums wishing to host the exhibition had to provide engineering reports certifying that this object could be safely moved into an exhibition gallery, that the floors could hold the weight and that the gallery met stringent environmental and security specifications.”
Vescolani reflects on his own memories of the Space Age triumph. “I was very young when we landed on the moon and don’t remember a lot,” he says. “But based on the excitement and world’s attention, I couldn’t help but be captivated by this amazing accomplishment and, like many children, dressed like an astronaut and pretended to explore new worlds. I’m sure [the Apollo 11] landing on the moon helped inspire me and many others to pursue an interest in science and discovery.
“The mission of the Saint Louis Science Center is to ignite and sustain lifelong science and technology learning. Wouldn’t it be awesome if the first person to walk on Mars was inspired by a visit to the science center?”
Saint Louis Science Center, 5050 Oakland Ave., St. Louis, 314-289-4400, slsc.org