Celebrate the Apollo 11 Moon Landing With These Texas Road Trips
Houston and other Texas sites celebrate the golden anniversary of the first lunar landing
Nobody really knew if we could get there. Well, get there safely. And if we did manage to get there safely, nobody really knew if we could get back. After all, we'd been sending people into space for only eight years and sending people out to circle that place for only seven months. Gigawatts of brainpower had gone into working out how to get there and back safely, calculating payloads, burn rates and what all; still, no one had done this. Ever. People from this world were going to walk on another world. So if you need reminding why people are making such a fuss about this anniversary of the first lunar landing, that's it: It's when we put people on the motherfuckin' moon!
Now, within another four years, putting people on the moon became so routine that the public lost interest and funding dried up, leading NASA to turn its attention to Skylab, interplanetary probes, and space shuttles. But with Apollo 11's 50th here, we're recovering the anticipation and awe of that first step on the moon and its accompanying "giant leap for mankind." And folks are finding all kind of ways to celebrate.
Texas has more cause to than most places. Native son Lyndon B. Johnson, though no longer in the White House when Apollo 11 flew, did more than anyone in government to drive the space program, first as vice president, then as president. (The LBJ Library and Museum currently has an exhibit up on the last NASA flight during his presidency, Apollo 8, the first manned mission to circle the moon.) Out west, McDonald Observatory spent years measuring the exact distance between Earth and the moon by firing lasers at a retroreflector array left on the lunar surface by Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin. And of course, Houston's home to what was the Manned Spacecraft Center when Aldrin and Neil Armstrong made their historic promenade at Tranquility Base. But it's also home to all the flight controllers, technicians, and support personnel who tracked Apollo 11, and the Apollo missions before and after (and the earlier Gemini flights), as well as the astronauts themselves and the families of everyone who worked for NASA.
So Houston is living up to its Space City moniker this summer, hatching more ways to mark Apollo 11's golden anniversary than you can shake a Saturn V at, from meals with mission personnel to art shows to lunar cocktails. Naturally, much of the action is at Space Center Houston, the educational complex/space museum built around the Johnson Space Center (posthumously renamed for LBJ in 1973). Along with the usual displays of items from NASA past, tram tours of the JSC, and mission briefings, the center will host special activities throughout the nine days corresponding to the dates of Apollo 11's flight (July 16-24). Among the highlights: a screening of the new doc Armstrong with legendary flight director Gene Kranz (Remember Ed Harris in Apollo 13?) in attendance; the exhibit "Apollo Art: 50-Year Retrospective," with more than 30 works drawn from the NASA collection; activities all day on July 20; and a Sixties splashdown party July 24.
But for true astro-geeks, the Big Deal at the JSC this summer is the restoration of the Apollo Mission Control Center on the third floor of Bldg. 30. Oh yeah, that room with the old-school computer consoles that you always see manned by guys in short sleeves with pocket protectors is getting its classic look back. Upgrades made in the space shuttle era are being stripped away, and the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR-2) will be returned to its Apollo configuration after the consoles receive a thorough refurbishing at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kan. Experts in its SpaceWorks division will restore and reanimate each one, installing buttons and sequences and lighting the monochromatic displays on the cathode ray tube monitors. And everything that would've been on the consoles back in the day – binders, headsets, pencils, coffee cups, ashtrays – will be duplicated and put in place. The other four parts of the center – the summary display projection room, aka the "bat cave"; the Simulation Control Room and Recovery Control Room, which coordinated support after splashdown; and the Visitors Viewing Area, for family members and VIP guests – will be restored, too. The new, old Apollo Mission Control Center should be ready for visitors in mid-June.
That's fantastic if you want to connect with the Earth-bound support system for those moon-bound astronauts, but what if you want to get closer to that luminous lunar body itself? Well, a road trip to the McDonald Observatory is never a bad idea. Its telescopes will give any sky-gazer an intimate look at our celestial neighbor. And it has an ongoing twilight program this year on Earth's Companion: The Moon, which will educate you in the phases of the moon, lunar eclipses, and just what's down there among all those craters. (Hint: Not a man.) Plus, you'll get tips on just what to look for in the after-dark Star Party.
Not close enough? Back in Space City, the Houston Museum of Natural Science has something that may leave you moonstruck: a meticulously mapped replica of la Luna almost 23 feet in diameter that floats above you and is lit from within. Dubbed The Museum of the Moon, this is the work of visionary British artist Luke Jerram – remember about six years ago when we had all those pianos placed around town for just anyone to play? Same guy. Fascinated by the tidal ranges in his hometown of Bristol, he decided to see what kind of gravitational pull a 7-meter moon would exert on people. Working with the world's largest inflatable balloon company, Cameron Balloons, he covered a balloon with photographs shot by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. His "moon" features the entire lunar surface in astonishing detail – viewers can even study the dark side that's always turned away from Earth. In places where Jerram has exhibited his floating orb, people have taken to lying on the floor just gazing at it – "moonbathing," as the artist likes to say.
Still not close enough? Maybe you'd like to visit the moon with the Apollo 11 astronauts via Todd Douglas Miller's exhilarating documentary made with original NASA footage. Miller has just assembled a version exclusively for IMAX® and giant screen theatres that rockets to science centers and museums this week. At 47 minutes, Apollo 11: First Steps Edition is half the length of the original doc, but it contains 70mm footage and audio recordings not seen before and, well, the size will put you as close as anything can. Austin won't be getting this edition at the Bullock Texas State History Museum until September, so if you want to get to the moon sooner, the film's at three other spots in the state this summer: the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, Dallas' Perot Museum of Nature and Science, and – surprise! – the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
If you choose the last option, you'll be at the same site as not only Jerram's The Museum of the Moon, but the Burke Baker Planetarium, which also has some lunar themed programs, including a daily trip with Pink Floyd to – say it with me – The Dark Side of the Moon.
And as long as you're in Space City, you can see the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's showing of photographs from its collection that relate to the moon, including Ansel Adams' Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, and Garry Winogrand's Apollo 11 Moon Launch, Cape Kennedy, Florida, as well as documentary images from NASA. And when you're ready for your own personal splashdown, you have your choice of craft cocktails that Houston mixologists have concocted for the summer of Apollo 11 – say, Peli Peli's TheCR7, a blend of lemon vodka, elderflower liqueur, lemon juice, honey syrup, butterfly pea flower and ice that undergoes its own cosmic redshift, turning from blue to purple as the acidity of the citrus reacts to other ingredients; or Backstreet Cafe's We Came in Peace for All Mankind, made with Sipsmith gin, El Tesoro tequila, maraschino liqueur, green chartreuse, lime, and a crème de violette "Moon" ice cube; Riel's Dark Side of the Moon, with Madeira, crème de cacao, Scotch, bitters, and 8th Wonder's Rocket Fuel beer; or the Hyatt Regency Houston's 450 Celsius, with vodka, lime juice, Cointreau, white cranberry juice, blue curaçao, and a moon-shaped chocolate truffle as a garnish.
But wherever you go (and whatever you drink), may I suggest taking along Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11 (Little, Brown & Co., 456 pp., $30)? In it, Dallas author James Donovan tracks the life of the lunar mission from the time when it was still a gleam in the eye of Wernher von Braun as he was building V-2s for the Nazis through the Mercury and Gemini missions and initial Apollo missions to the monumental voyage made by Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins. Its breadth and detail will give you a new appreciation for just how complex and dangerous this mission was. You'll come away marveling that, against all odds, we put people on the motherfuckin' moon!
Space Center Houston
1601 NASA Pkwy., Houston. spacecenter.org.
Apollo 11's 50th anniversary events run July 16-24, including daily tram tours of the Johnson Space Center and Mission Control, Apollo 11 mission briefings, and Apollo 11 pop-up labs; Special lunches with Apollo flight controllers: noon on Tue., July 16, and Wed., July 24, and with children of Apollo astronauts and flight controllers, Thu., July 18; Space on Screen with Dinner: Armstrong – presentation of the new documentary profiling Neil Armstrong with flight director Gene Kranz in attendance, Fri., July 19; Apollo 11 50th Live at Space Center Houston – full-day celebration with panel presentations about the Apollo 11 mission, booksignings, and an outdoor evening concert with a timed countdown to the moment when Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the lunar surface, Sat., July 20; Apollo 11 Mission Splashdown Party with a Sixties theme and live music, Wed., July 24. "Apollo Art: 50-Year Retrospective" features more than 30 works from the collections of NASA and contributions from other current artists. Through Nov. 3.
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Audrey Jones Beck Building, 5601 Main, Houston, July 20-Sept. 2. www.mfah.org.
"Shooting the Moon: Photographs From the Museum's Collection 50 Years After Apollo 11" Photography exhibition that includes documentary images from NASA missions; Ansel Adams' Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico; Garry Winogrand's Apollo 11 Moon Launch, Cape Kennedy, Florida; the re-creation by Cortis & Sonderegger of Buzz Aldrin's first footprint on the moon; and more.
Houston Museum of Natural Science
5555 Hermann Park, Houston. www.hmns.org.
The Museum of the Moon by Luke Jerram; Burke Baker Planetarium features programs such as "To Defy Gravity" and "Dark Side of the Moon."
3640 Dark Sky Dr., Ft. Davis. mcdonaldobservatory.org.
Earth's Companion; The Moon Program using interactive demonstrations, video, and high-resolution images to explore moon phases, eclipses, and lunar surface features.
Twilight programs at 8:15pm on Fri.-Sat., May 17-18, June 7-8; June 15-16; July 12-13; Aug. 9-10, with additional programs on Tuesdays, May 21, June 11, July 9, July 16, Aug. 6, and Aug. 13, and one on Sat., July 5.
Apollo 11: First Steps Edition Houston Museum of Natural Science, now showing through Sept. 2; Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, now showing through Aug. 16; Perot Museum of Nature and Science, May 24-Aug. 30.