This year will remember NASA’s historic Apollo program, beginning with the terrible tragedy of Apollo 1.
The year 2017 marks a major milestone in crewed spaceflight. It’s the year that Apollo 1, the first mission with people on board, was supposed to make its journey into space. While mission preparations ended with a deadly fire that killed three astronauts on Jan. 27, 1967, they made officials put a new emphasis on safety and crew preparedness that eventually landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin onto the lunar surface two year later.
So, kicking off with 50th anniversary of the dawn of the Apollo era this month, there will be a series of other “50ths” over the coming years: Apollo 1 (in January), Apollo 8’s trip to the moon (December 2018), Apollo 11’s journey to the lunar surface (July 2019), Apollo 13’s “successful failure” (April 2020) and the last lunar landing, Apollo 17 (December 2022). These are big dates to be sure, but how relevant are these distant anniversaries to today’s twentysomethings, teenagers and children? This is a question that museums are already starting to ponder as they introduce new exhibits and re-invigorate older ones.
For example, the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kans. (near Wichita) has a temporary exhibit going up in January to mark the anniversary of Apollo 1. Courtesy of private collector Ray Katz, artifacts on display include an emergency egress plan, a hat from a pad worker on site the day of the tragedy and a schematic book that belonged to backup astronaut Walt Cunningham (who later flew on Apollo 7.)
Collections manager Shannon Wetzel added that appealing to younger generations is something “that all museums struggle with,” but the museum is taking some steps. The museum has the Apollo 13 command module on display, loaned from the Smithsonian. An explosion crippled the spacecraft on its way to the moon in April 1970 and prevented a landing, but the crew was safely returned to Earth. Nevertheless, the mission was seen by some as a failure because it didn’t achieve its prime objective, she said.
“There were a lot of lessons learned from that failure,” said Wetzel, citing the routine flights to the International Space Station young people see regularly today. The flights are still dangerous, but are less so because of the lessons from Apollo 13 and other missions from the space program. It’s something the museum tries to emphasize when speaking with school groups about Apollo, she added.
There are other steps the museum is taking as well. A popular live science program called “Goddard’s Lab”, which follows the life and exploits of liquid rocket inventor and developer Robert Goddard, may have some materials put online so that people can access the materials without visiting the museum. The education department also has a newer program called “Apollo Redux”, which encourages students to solve problems similar to what faced Apollo 13 — making it more interesting to a younger audience. Even corporate groups have taken advantage of the program for team-building since it started a couple of years ago.
The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, meanwhile, is undergoing a major re-haul for many of its Washington, D.C.-based exhibits. The “Apollo To The Moon” gallery has been much the same since 1976, but will soon be shut down and completely revamped for a new exhibit. It will show how national policy and the Cold War aligned to make Apollo possible for a brief time in the 1960s, putting that special time in context for a younger audience, said curator Allan Needell.
The familiar floor of the museum is also all changed. Lunar Module 2, which was near the cafeteria for years, is now in a central position in the new front lobby exhibit that commemorates the milestones of flight. And the Apollo 11 command module is currently undergoing restoration (and 3D imaging to allow new audiences to see it as never before) before it is put back on the floor sometime in the coming years.
Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong’s suit has been off display for years, but right now his helmet and gloves are in full view at the museum’s annex facility, called Udvar-Hazy, in Chantilly, Va. (near Dulles International Airport.)
With money raised from a Kickstarter campaign (“Reboot The Suit“) in 2015, the museum is now working on better ways to display spacesuits and to put Armstrong’s full suit on display again for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. Needell said that the older way caused microbial environments to form inside the suit, so they are looking at better ways of display and conservation.
“We’re just beginning to talk about public programs in conjunction with what the other Smithsonian bureaus might be interested in doing,” Needell added. “We want to take advantage of what we expect will be public interest, especially for younger generations. For them, this is like the Spanish-American War or World War II. We want to help them understand.”
With several Apollo astronauts still alive (albeit at advanced ages), Needell didn’t rule out bringing some of them ones in for public events. The museum may also be putting out special publications to commemorate the Apollo program and to put it in context with other space programs of today.