There’s no better place to discover space and learn more about the first man to walk on the moon than the Armstrong Air & Space Museum.
Located in Neil Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta, just an hour north of Dayton, the museum chronicles the astronaut’s life and Ohio’s contribution to aviation and space exploration.
The distinctive shape of the museum sets the tone for visitors. “The architect wanted to convey the sense of a futuristic moon base,” Executive Director Dante Centuori said. The “pressure dome” in the middle spans the underground cement structure.
Fifty years ago on July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 crew, commanded by Armstrong, landed on the lunar surface. Ohio Gov. James Rhodes proposed a museum to mark the achievements of not only Armstrong but “all Ohioans who have attempted to defy gravity.”
Three years later the museum opened.
Inside, the exhibits are laid out in chronological order starting with a replica of the Sputnik satellite, indicating the head start the Soviet Union had in the Space Race.
Artifacts from Armstrong’s boyhood growing up in Wapakoneta follow. A rust-colored lunch pail from first grade, his 1940 Boy Scout patrol flag and parts of a wind tunnel built for a science experiment are glimpses into his youth.
Visitors can listen to audio of his parents, recorded during the Apollo 11 mission, that captures the emotion of the time.
Mom Viola Armstrong wishes for his safety, “hoping and praying it goes well,” and his father, Stephen Armstrong, recalls the day he and his 6-year-old son skipped Sunday school in 1936 to take an airplane ride, the spark for Neil’s love of flying.
“Things like that are fascinating and make a world-famous person relatable,” Centuori said. “Everyone who was a kid can relate to them.”
The museum displays three aircraft piloted by Armstrong. Outside, a F5D Skylancer, one of only four produced, was an experimental airplane he flew as a Naval test pilot.
Suspended inside the museum is the yellow Aeronca 7AC Champion airplane Armstrong learned to fly in 1946 at an Auglaize County airfield before he earned his driver’s license. Next to it is the Gemini VIII capsule Armstrong and David Scott navigated to rendezvous with an orbiting Agena rocket in 1966.
“That was a space first, and at that point in history we weren’t racking up too many space firsts,” Centuori said. “It was also the first in-flight space emergency and it was quite harrowing.”
Moments after successfully docking, the joined vehicles began to spin. Armstrong fired Gemini VIII’s thrusters to separate from the Agena, but his ship went into a roll. After several dramatic minutes, Armstrong cut the main thrusters, activated the re-entry control system and stopped the spinning. NASA aborted the mission.
Recently Jen Shaffer of Harrod, Ohio, not far from Wapakoneta, visited the museum with her son and two students in the International Farm Youth Exchange program.
Shaffer, who said she took the museum for granted on field trips as a kid, sees it differently as an adult.
“In a cultural exchange like this, I’m able to share something that’s unique to Ohio and this area — that all over the world you mention the name Neil Armstrong, and people know who he is.”
While looking at the displays, Shaffer recalled her own encounter with Armstrong when she worked as a manager at Wapakoneta’s Lowe’s store in 2008. When Armstrong handed her his credit card to pay for a load of lumber, she asked for another form of identification. Certain it had to be fake, she could not believe she was waiting on the first man to walk on the moon.
The museum also houses one-of-a kind artifacts like Armstrong’s Gemini and Apollo spacesuits and a lunar sample – the term NASA uses for a space rock. “It was on the surface of the moon for billions of years and one day 50 years ago, Neil Armstrong picked that one up and it’s here in the museum,” Centuori said.
The museum also explores life in orbit with displays of space food and the tools astronauts use to go to the bathroom. Space shuttle and NASA rover exhibits describe the evolution of space exploration. There are also hands-on simulators including a hovercraft that mimics the sensation of weightlessness.
Visitors can experience what it might look like to roam through space with a walk through the Infinity Room and a half-hour film about the Eagle’s dramatic descent to the lunar surface plays inside the Astro Theater.
The museum and the rest of the Wapakoneta community are celebrating the Apollo 11 anniversary with the Summer Moon Festival, 10 days of events from July 12-21.
A parade, hot air rally and a NASA Television broadcast from the museum on July 19 are among the festivities. The full schedule can be found at firstonthemoon.org.
“The 50th anniversary of anything is huge,” Centuori said. “This is the hometown of the first man to step foot on the moon. That’s just remarkable.”
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