We tend to remember where we were at the time of major historical events, like when we found out that Elvis was dead or when a gimpy Kirk Gibson hit that home run against Dennis Eckersley to win the first game of the 1988 World Series. For space geeks and for anyone over age 56 or so, the ultimate such shared experience has to be when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon. Estimates are that up to 600 million people worldwide and more than 130 million in the US alone watched the Moon landing on live television.
Thus, it was a thrill for me to recently stand about a foot away from an amazing piece of space exploration history, the Apollo 11 “Columbia” command module, at the St. Louis Science Center. Columbia hadn’t left the Smithsonian since doing a national tour in the early 1970s, but the historic space capsule is part of a touring exhibit called Destination Moon that will visit four cities before returning to the National Air and Space Museum as part of a new comprehensive Apollo exhibit. The tour started last year in Houston and the St. Louis stop wraps up Sept. 3, 2018. It will be on display in Pittsburgh starting later this month and then—get this!—its final stop on the tour will be the Museum of Flight in Seattle, where it will be on display beginning in March for a stay that will include the 50th anniversary date of the Moon landing. Huzzah!
The Destination Moon exhibit is great, with lots of information about how we got there, who the key players were, and why we did it. But the Columbia capsule was just completely mesmerizing, at least for me. I was a total space nut kid, kept scrapbooks of newspaper clippings of stories about the space flights, and was glued to the TV for launches and landings. Standing next to Columbia took me back to my almost-12 self. I dare say I was giddy in its presence. I spent a couple of hours in the exhibit, mostly just looking at this fabulous artifact.
There were a couple of other cool items in the exhibit. Aldrin’s helmet and gloves used on the Moon were there, as was a sample collection case in which he and Armstrong stowed their Moon rocks. They also have one injector plate from an Apollo engine, of they type around which the Museum of Flight has built its popular Apollo exhibit. Columbia’s escape hatch is on display separately from the capsule. There is a collection of gear such as first-aid items and a survival kit in case the capsule splashed down far away from its target upon return to Earth. And, oh yes, there’s a Moon rock, too. Interestingly enough, I saw Moon rocks at both the St. Louis Science Center and Adler Planetarium in Chicago during a recent trip to the Midwest, and visitors showed little interest in either. THAT’S A HUNK OF THE MOON FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! OK, rant over. Maybe that’s not a big thing in the age of virtual reality and interactive exhibits. Alas.
Elsewhere in the St. Louis Science Center they have Mercury and Gemini capsules, too, and another current exhibit is Mission: Mars that is a lot of fun. The center is also home to the James S. McDonnell Planetarium, built in 1963 and named for the co-founder of McDonnell-Douglas, who kicked in a good chunk of change for equipment for the facility.
Membership has its privileges; I got $1 off admission to Destination Moon thanks to my membership in the Museum of Flight. Parking would have been free had I driven, but I took public transit to the center.
Destination Moon will be at the Museum of Flight from April 13–Sept. 2, 2019. Check below for a trailer video, and for more of our photos from the exhibit.
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