Now Boarding: Destination Moon Highlights Apollo 11's Make It Work Moments

The historic Apollo 11 command module has left the Smithsonian to travel the country for the first time in 41 years as part of an exhibit called Destination Moon.

Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission

Almost fifty years have past since Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins set off for the Moon, and despite the mounting challenges the Apollo program faced, they made it. Almost immediately after their return to Earth, the three men set off on a world tour greeting massive crowds everywhere they went. Their command module, Columbia, set off on a tour of its own, traveling to all 50 states before heading to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C, where it's been on permanent display ever since.
The Apollo 11 command module on display at Space Center Houston in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing. It will travel across the country as part of the Destination Moon exhibit over the next year.

Now, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, Columbia has a new mission. As part of a special exhibit called, Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission, Columbia will again tour the country over the next two years to remind us all what we are capable of. The artifacts traveling with the command module shed light on the considerable amount of technology that made the Apollo program possible, but also highlight the make it work attitude that only humans could deliver.


The exhibit, Destination Moon, will travel to only four states this time, setting up in science museums for a few months to give guests the chance to plan a trip to the city closest to them. Each destination was chosen for a combination of reasons, including the ability to display the heavy module, location, and each museum's existing collection of space history. Once the module returns to Washington D.C. it will likely stay put for a long time as the star of the Smithsonian's own Destination Moon exhibit that is currently being built.

Destination Moon exhibit curated by The Smithsonian

Smithsonian curators spent months preparing Columbia and supplemental artifacts for transport. As part of the preservation process Columbia underwent a 3-D scanning process that allows guests to see inside the capsule for the first time.

The 3-D Digitization Program at the Smithsonian Columbia is available to the public to view, 3-D print, and download all in high resolution.

(See Smithsonian 3-D digitization of Columbia)

The interactive display of the capsule's interior is impressive. Thousands of controls and features inside the command module are visible from a pilots-eye view. With such detailed 3-D imaging, the Smithsonian was able to capture the writing, scribbles, and notations, or 'astronaut graffiti', that gives an even more intimate idea of what took place inside the module during the mission.

Astronaut graffiti was discovered during preservation work that was conducted on the historic Apollo 11 capsule.
Small, undiscovered, or forgotten, details like the astronaut graffiti make up much of the exhibit – and really it's those details that exemplify what was so special about Apollo 11, and the entire program in general. Despite the daunting number of hurdles, setbacks, and problems that arose before and during the mission, everyone was expected to find a solution in order to make it work.

Star charts included in the exhibit point to the considerable brainstorming, effort, and dedication from both engineers and astronauts. With deadlines looming, instrumentation was consolidated, celestial navigation training became significant, and the exterior design of the module was finalized.
The star chart Buzz Aldrin used during Apollo 11 to keep the command module aligned and on course while traveling in space.
Armstrong's spacesuit, gloves, and helmet are undergoing conservation in order to make them ready for the Smithsonian's permanent exhibit. Just as fragile, but available to travel with the collection, are the extravehicular gloves and helmet worn by Buzz Aldrin.

Though the scientific discoveries were central to the mission, Aldrin's gloves document the human story the program wanted to tell. Printed across the cuff, a succinct list of tasks to complete guided Aldrin's movements on the Moon. 'Photo Footprint' it says, and with that, Aldrin captured one of the most iconic and enduring images of the space program.
The lunar checklist was printed directly onto the cuff of Aldrin's extravehicular gloves.
While the majority of the artifacts in the exhibit tell the story of their intended purpose in the mission, there is one glass case that holds two never displayed items - a switch tab and a pen. At some point inside the LM, a tiny circuit breaker switch was broken off. The tab is about the size of raisin, but it was critical to getting the astronauts off the Moon and back to Columbia where Collins was waiting. A crew on the ground managed to come up with a solution, but Aldrin took matters into his own hands and used his pen to flip the switch. It worked.
The tab and pen that almost kept Aldrin and Armstrong on the Moon.

The exhibit will travel to the following museums before returning to Washington D.C. as part of the permanent Destination Moon exhibit that opens in 2021:

  • Space Center Houston—Oct. 14, 2017–March 18, 2018
  • Saint Louis Science Center—April 14–Sept. 3, 2018
  • Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh—Sept. 29, 2018–Feb. 18, 2019
  • The Museum of Flight, Seattle—March 16–Sept. 2, 2019

I traveled to Houston to preview the exhibition, but the upcoming stop at the St. Louis Science Center is only a short trip from Chicago. Each museum along the tour is working closely with Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) to coordinate existing displays and events. 

(Related: Space Center Houston, Where You Can Explore the Heart of NASA)

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