Heinz History Center exhibit takes you to the moon and back

By September 25, 2018 No Comments

“It takes a lot of people whose names aren’t remembered by history to make something like this happen.”

Nearly 50 years ago, three Americans made an indelible mark on history when they left this world on a Saturn V rocket, and became the first humans to walk on the Moon.

The Apollo 11 mission, piloted by astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, fulfilled a promise President John F. Kennedy made before Congress in 1961: to land a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s. Its success was a monumental feat of engineering, the likes of which we’ve barely approached since.

“Since going to the moon, which is about 240,000 miles away, the farthest a human has gone from the planet is about 300 miles. So 50 years later, we’re not even close, and you think about all the technology we have now,” said Michael Dubois, director of design at the Heinz History Center.

Answering just how three men made it to the Moon and back, as well as what the future holds for space travel, is the aim of the Heinz History Center’s upcoming feature exhibit, “Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission.” The result of the Heinz History Center’s affiliation with the Smithsonian Institute, Pittsburgh will be the third of four stops on the exhibit’s cross-country tour while its home, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., undergoes renovations.

 “Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission” will be on display at the Heinz History Center from September 29 to February 17, 2019. The exhibition is included with general museum admission. There will be a kick-off event at 9:30 a.m. on opening day. A full list of public events can be found at

“Destination Moon” is particularly anticipated for its treasure trove of artifacts from the famed journey, many of which have never left their D.C. home since 1970.

“You’ll get to see flown objects, things like: Michael Collins’ helmet and gloves, daily journals, star charts they used, the survival kit they carried when they landed,” says Anne Madarasz, chief historian at the Heinz History Center.

The piece de resistance of the exhibition is the original Columbia space capsule, the only portion of the Apollo 11 spacecraft to return to Earth.

With pieces of this caliber, it is appropriate that the History Center makes the exhibit hard to miss. A massive model of the Saturn V rocket serves as the entryway to “Destination Moon.”

“Guests enter the exhibit through a gantry, styled after the gantry the astronauts used to board Apollo 11, and then go through a giant facade of the rocket,” says Dubois. “So you’re walking into the rocket as if you’re an astronaut.”

From there, guests are transported to the era of the Wright Brothers, to show how crucial the jump from Earth to the air is to the history of space exploration.

“It’s like a movie. You know how it’s going to end, we all know they made it to the Moon, but let’s go back to when people were first thinking about flying,” Dubois said.

The exhibition’s opening gallery, titled “The Dream of Flight,” captures aviation’s infancy in Pittsburgh. Blueprints for early aircraft designed by Pittsburghers are transformed into full sized cutouts flying overhead, and a piece of the original Wright Flyer’s wing is on display.

From here, guests enter a winding gallery, focusing on the creation of the nationwide apparatus that would be required for a lunar mission.

“Then you go into the exhibit and get into the nitty-gritty of how we got to the moon,” Dubois said. “This part of the exhibit is designed to be a little close quarters and tight, because the astronauts were in these really small spaces.”

This gallery leads to a replica of the hatch door of the lunar lander, the last thing the astronauts would see before stepping foot on the Moon, before leading to the climax of the exhibition.

“When you turn the corner, the exhibit opens up and becomes this really large gallery, which is like the vastness of space,” Dubois said.

A shrine to space history, this room contains a plethora of flown objects from the Apollo 11 mission, including the Columbia command capsule.

“You just get hit with this amazing amount of content,” Dubois said.

At the end of the exhibition, for example, is an interactive play area for kids of all ages, with several activities to make concepts more accessible to children.

“We wanted to give kids a sense of how small the command module really was, give them a sense of what qualities of life are on the moon,” says Mariruth Leftwich, the History Center’s director of education. “We wanted to give kids a concrete and tactile example of the ideas we were talking about.”

Included is a full scale replica of the command capsule, which guests can climb inside to get a feel for how small a space the astronauts occupied. Guests can also try to land the lunar module on the Moon via a video game, and experience just how hard it was for astronauts to collect samples.

“Guests can reach into astronaut suit arms, and try and pick up moon rocks,” Leftwich said. “The suits aren’t bendable, so they had to try and pick up these scientific specimens using, essentially, hand-grabbers.”

After a deluge of history, a different side of the story comes into view. The exhibition’s penultimate section is dedicated to the role Pittsburgh companies and people played in this massive story.

“It took 400,000 people to get those guys to the Moon,” Madarasz said. “There’s a huge number of people that made that mission possible, and some of those people grew up here and trained here, so we talk about their contributions to the Space Race.”

The work of corporations rooted in Pittsburgh, like ALCOA and Westinghouse, is featured prominently.

“When Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Eagle to the moon, the hatch was made with ALCOA aluminum,” Madarasz said. “He got down on the surface and he immediately set up the camera that Westinghouse made to beam back images to Earth.”

The exhibit emphasizes Pittsburgh’s place not just in the history of space travel, but the future as well. Featured in this gallery is a prototype lunar lander designed by Astrobotic, a Pittsburgh based aerospace engineering company.

“We also talk about companies like Astrobotic, a CMU spinoff, that’s developing a lander to deliver commercial payloads to the Moon by 2020,” Madarasz says. “If you come together with a singular purpose, you can make great strides.

“It takes a lot of people whose names aren’t remembered by history to make something like this happen.”

Nick Eustis is a Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer. Contact him at

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