46 years later, Apollo 11 hits the road again

After finding its home at the Smithsonian in Washington for more than four decades, the command module of the historic moon landing spacecraft Apollo 11 is going on 'a road trip.'

AP/ File
In this July 24, 1969 file photo, the Apollo 11 command module lands in the Pacific Ocean and the crew waits to be picked up by US Navy personnel after an eight day mission to the moon. The Apollo 11 command module, which traveled more than 950,000 miles to take Americans to the moon and back in 1969, is going on a road trip, leaving the Smithsonian for the first time in more than four decades.

After finding a home at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. for more than four decades, the command module of the historic moon-mission spacecraft Apollo 11 is going on “a road trip.”

The tour, featuring a new exhibit, will visit four cities across the country, only its second tour since its splash-landing back on Earth on July 24, 1969. While the tour is planned to celebrate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the momentous event in US space history, the announcement comes at a time when Americans may be en route to explore another foreign body in space: Mars.

The command module, the only part of the spacecraft that returned to Earth after an eight-day mission to the moon, proved hugely popular during its first tour around the country, when more than three million people saw it and an accompanying moon rock. Visitors often waited hours to get inside a trailer that housed the capsule, as it traveled to every single state capital except Juneau of Alaska – although it did stop in Anchorage.

The new tour will act as a preview for a exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, coming in 2021, that tells the story of the Apollo missions.

“While we're preparing for its new home we could share it with other venues and have some broader access to it,” Allan Needell, the curator of the Smithsonian's space history department, told the Associated Press, adding that the other option would be just to store the capsule, whose interior is about the size of a car.

The new touring exhibition, "Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission," is slated to open this October in Houston and travel through St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Seattle for the next two years, spending about five months at each site. Interactive 3-D technology will also be used in the new tour, as visitors explore the inside and outside of where astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins worked and lived during the mission. Other objects used in the lunar mission, such as gloves and a “rock box” used to bring back samples from the moon, will also be presented together with the capsule.

The tour comes at a time of intense interest in exploring another body in space: the Red Planet. With the goal of sending human beings to Mars in the 2030s, NASA has published plans for a journey to Mars, laying out potential phases of "Earth Reliant," "Proving Ground," and "Earth Independent" exploration. 

However, despite NASA’s bold vision to embrace Mars exploration, government auditors have expressed concerns about the plan's feasibility, questioning the agency's ability to meet deadlines given insufficient funding and internal management problems.

While the steps to Mars might still be several years away, Americans can reminisce and celebrate the success of Apollo 11 through the new tour.

"For the first time, people actually saw 'Spaceship Earth,' and it prompted many people to begin thinking differently about our planet," Don Cline, the president and founder of the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, told USA TODAY in 2014, remembering the legacy of the lunar mission. "Someone once observed, 'On the way to the moon we discovered the Earth.'"

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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