When we stayed in Wapakoneta, Ohio, on our trip home from Michigan last summer, I noticed that Buzz Aldrin had signed the lobby wall of our hotel.
A closer look revealed more moon-related memorabilia around the lobby and a model lunar module. Our room didn’t carry on the theme, although it was sleek and industrial-chic for a Holiday Inn Express.
We’d arrived in the dark. When we went to load the car in the morning, I saw why we were surrounded by Tranquility Base at this hotel. Rising behind it, a half-sphere like a moon buried in a hill, and a sign.
“Armstrong Air & Space Museum.”
Moon Over Ohio
I was among the millions who sat in front of the TV the night of July 20, 1969. Ours was a big black and white console, but it didn’t matter. Other than being an otherworldy destination, the moon wasn’t colorful. Neil Armstrong announced he was about to hop off that last bit of ladder from the lunar lander. We held our breaths.
He landed, not knowing if he’d sink six feet, with a puff of moon dust at his feet.
I was a kid. But by God, I saw a man step on the moon. THAT was impressive.
The fact they could transmit images back to Earth for us to see on television was amazing too.
Neil Armstrong wasn’t alone, of course. Once Buzz Aldrin joined him, they bounced across the lunar surface like it was, well, bouncy. Newton’s Theory hadn’t entered my elementary school classroom yet.
I’ve been a bit of a space geek all my life. So to find a space museum behind our hotel in rural Ohio had me jazzed. Especially one that honored Neil Armstrong.
Unfortunately, it was a Sunday, and the center wouldn’t open until noon. Our schedule didn’t allow us to linger, so I put it on our return-to list.
When I mentioned it to John’s dad Jim, who’d grown up in that part of Ohio, he said, “Wapakoneta. That’s Neil Armstrong’s hometown.”
Jim should know. Among the thousands of Apollo mission workers at Kennedy Space Center who helped put Neil Armstrong on the moon, he managed a crew that prepared the Apollo 11 Command Module and Service Module for flight.
When we returned to Ohio this May, Wapakoneta – and Neil Armstrong – loomed large in our plans. The hotel had added more lunar-related ephemera, including signs and banners celebrating Wapakoneta’s role in getting to the moon.
Born in 1930 near Wapakoneta, Neil Armstrong was inspired to fly thanks to his father, who took him to air shows and on a flight in a Ford trimotor.
Before he was sixteen, Armstrong had his first pilot’s license. He wanted to be an aircraft designer, and joined the Navy as an aviator to pay for engineering school. After graduating from Purdue, he applied to be a test pilot, and was accepted by Edwards Air Force Base.
Shortly before applying for the astronaut corps in 1962, Armstrong grazed the edge of space in an X-15. Selected as one of the “Next Nine” after the initial Mercury astronauts, his first flight was as commander of Gemini 8.
As we walked into the Armstrong Air & Space Museum, we saw that the entrance hall is lined with photos honoring all astronauts from Ohio, not just Armstrong. He was not the first Ohioan launched into space. John Glenn took that honor. And he was not the last. But he was certainly one of the most well known.
In the first hall around the corner from the entrance, we came face to face with the very Gemini 8 that Armstrong flew with fellow astronaut Dave Scott. As we were looking carefully at it, trying to determine if it was a model or it was real, one of the staff members of the museum came over.
“It’s real. I can assure you.”
He told us the story of Gemini 8, which I hadn’t known. It was one of the vehicles NASA used to test docking in space with an unmanned target vehicle called Agena. We were aware of the “angry alligator” Agena, which happened on Gemini 9 when the fairing stuck open and Agena looked like an alligator wanting to gobble up the earth.
Gemini 8, however, had a different issue, more dangerous to its crew. It started tumbling end over end. Before the acceleration caused them to black out, Armstrong and Scott shut off all the thrusters. They then tested them, one by one, until they discovered the one causing the problem. The mission was scrubbed as they needed to use the re-entry thrusters to stabilize the spacecraft. But they made it home without further incident.
That quick thinking put Neil Armstrong on a course towards commanding an Apollo mission. Named the backup commander for Apollo 8, the first Apollo mission to orbit the moon, he was then chosen to lead the Apollo 11 prime team, which included Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.
Armstrong’s cool under pressure – as well as plenty of practice in a lunar module trainer, which he had to eject from at Ellington Air Force Base near Houston before it burst into a fireball – meant he could handle those final seconds of the lunar landing manually, wresting control from an autopilot that would have placed the Apollo 11 team in a crater atop a jumble of boulders.
It was one of the few times, NASA noted, that his heart rate rose well over a resting pulse.
Stepping onto the moon first was simply luck of the draw. Since Armstrong did the photography with a chest-mounted camera, it was Buzz Aldrin’s descent – and his subsequent lunar activities – he captured for the world to see. The closest he got to a self-portrait on the moon was his reflection in Aldrin’s helmet.
All three astronauts returned to Earth as heroes. As Michael Collins noted, the world embraced the success of Apollo 11 as their own. “Unanimously the reaction was, ‘We did it. We humans finally left this planet. We did it.'”
Inspiration and Education
The day of the moon landing, the Governor of Ohio proposed this museum be established. The state pledged half a million dollars immediately, with Wapakoneta residents working to match – and exceed – that funding. On July 20, 1972, three years to the date after stepping on the moon, Neil Armstrong stood here in his hometown and helped open the museum.
While showcasing artifacts of Armstrong’s early life – from a Boy Scout patrol flag he signed to the plane he flew at age 15, an Aeronca Champion – the museum ushers visitors through a timeline of the history of space, starting with Sputnik and the Russian cosmonauts. Hands-on activities and simulators make it a fun destination for families and anyone who loves space.
Dedicated galleries on Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo provide interpretation of each of the programs, highlighting Neil Armstrong’s role in each. In one room, you can sit and watch the original telecast of the moon landing broadcast on July 20, 1969. Nearby, a folio of newspaper front pages captures the excitement of the moment.
While there are spacesuits, freeze-dried food, and many other items used by the Apollo missions in the Apollo galleries, the most fascinating item on display is a moon rock brought back on Apollo 11.
Transitioning through a starfield into the Astro Theater, visitors enjoy a 25-minute Apollo 11 documentary that focuses on the lunar landing. While we all know the outcome, it’s still exciting to watch.
On the other side of the theater, you emerge into a large hall dedicated to the Space Shuttle program. As we walked through, it was filled with students learning about how astronauts lived aboard the orbiters. Sent through the galleries on a scavenger hunt, they mused over what it would be like to be an astronaut.
That spark of inspiration for the next generation is the best reason for this, and America’s many other space museums, to keep reminding us of humanity’s accomplishments beyond our own fragile planet.
As you might expect, the Armstrong Air & Space Museum – and all of Wapakoneta – is caught up in a celebration of their “First Man” and the Apollo 11 50th anniversary. While portions of the celebration run all year long, the Wapakoneta Summer Moon Festival is going on right now, ending Sunday July 21. Learn more.
The Armstrong Air & Space Museum is operated by a nonprofit dedicated to the museum and is a unit of the Ohio Historical Society, so you can get your Ohio History Connection passport stamped here. Learn more.