Smithsonian 3-D Project Sheds New Light on Astronaut Graffiti Found in Museum’s Apollo 11 Command Module

Press Release
Thursday, February 11, 2016 - 10:00am

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The National Air and Space Museum and the Smithsonian’s 3D Digitization Program have uncovered writing on the interior walls of the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia while 3-D scanning the artifact. Unseen for almost 50 years, the markings include notes, figures and a calendar presumably written by the Apollo 11 astronauts during their historic flight to the moon. The project to digitize Columbia will make these details and many others, previously unseen by museum visitors, available online for the first time.

These markings give a glimpse into the first mission to land on the moon, crewed by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Some of the markings include numbers and calculations relayed from mission control written on the wall near the navigational tools. There also seems to be a calendar written by one of the astronauts with each day crossed out except for landing day. Seeing such details and studying the text have enabled curators to enhance their understanding and compile a more complete account of how the missions were conducted. Research is being conducted to determine what the markings were for, which astronauts made them and what insights they provide about the historic trip that occurred between July 16 and 24, 1969.

“As curator of what is arguably one of the most iconic artifacts in the entire Smithsonian collection, it’s thrilling to know that we can still learn new things about Columbia,” said Allan Needell, curator of space history at the museum. “This isn’t just a piece of machinery, it’s a living artifact.”

The museum has been working with the Smithsonian’s 3D Digitization Program to scan the Command Module in 3-D to create a high-resolution interactive model of the entire spacecraft. This highly detailed model will allow researchers and the public to explore the entire craft, a feat not possible when viewing the artifact in the museum. The model will be available in June on and used to produce an interactive display in the museum’s exhibition “Destination Moon,” scheduled to open in 2020.

The 3-D scanning process for the Command Module was extremely challenging. The module is composed of reflective surfaces that 3-D capture devices do not read well. Its interior dashboards are made up of many components that are delicate and intricate, which also presents a challenge for many 3-D capture devices. Because of the complicated nature of this scan, the Smithsonian 3D team brought in its technology partner, Autodesk Inc. Autodesk, a leader in cloud-based design and engineering software, deployed specially designed equipment to scan the artifact, and its advanced Memento software was able to process complex data from multiple 3-D capture devices to create one highly detailed and accurate model.

The National Air and Space Museum building on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is located at Sixth Street and Independence Avenue S.W. The museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is located in Chantilly, Va., near Washington Dulles International Airport. Both facilities are open daily from 10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free, but there is a $15 fee for parking at the Udvar-Hazy Center.

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  • While 3D scanning the Apollo 11 Command Module, museum staff uncovered writing on the interior walls of the module.The main control panel of the spacecraft contains essential switches and indicators that had to be referred to and operated during the most crucial aspects of the flight. Numbers and references written by hand onto the panel can be checked against the audio and written transcripts from the mission to provide a more vivid picture of just what transpired.

  • During the 3D scanning project of the Apollo 11 Command Module, museum staff uncovered writing on the interior walls of the module. At some point during the mission, one of the astronauts created a small calendar on a smooth wall below one of the lockers. Each day of the Apollo 11 mission is crossed out except for landing day. The calendar is covered with a plastic sheet held by tape. Museum curators are in the process of trying to determine just when the calendar was drawn.

  • During the 3D scanning project of the Apollo 11 Command Module, museum staff uncovered writing on the interior walls of the module. These notes illustrate improvisation during the mission and modification of pre-flight plans for what items were to be placed in each locker. The reasons suggest something about what life was like on the way to the moon and back.

  • While 3D scanning the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia, museum staff uncovered writing on its interior walls. On this panel, numbers and other notations copied from mission control voice transmissions were recorded in pen or pencil, just to the left of where command module pilot, Michael Collins, would have stood using the spacecraft's sextant and telescope for navigation. Audio and recorded transcripts of those communications can be compared with these numbers to suggest when and by whom they were written.

  • While 3D scanning project of the Apollo 11 Command Module, museum staff uncovered writing on the interior walls of the module. These lockers and cabinets within the Apollo Command Module used alphanumeric codes to assist the process of stowing necessary equipment. Locker B2 was initially reserved for personal items carried to space by the astronauts. Sometime during the mission the personal items were moved and one of the astronauts seems to have posted a reminder that the substitute items should probably remain there undisturbed for the rest of the mission.

  • All three Apollo 11 astronauts were quarantined for several weeks following the mission at the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. Quarantined with them was a photographer and technician, John Hirasaki, who was given the job of removing essential items from the Command Module and decontaminating the interior. This image was taken during the quarantine period and shows the condition of the cabin shortly after its arrival back in the country. Note the calendar visible just to the left of Hirasaki.

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    Following splashdown,while en route to Hawaii on the USS Hornet, Michael Collins crawled back into the command module (it was connected to the mobile quarantine facility by an air-tight tunnel) and wrote this short note on one of the equipment bay panels.  The inscription reads:

    Spacecraft 107, alias Apollo 11, alias "Columbia."
    The Best Ship to Come Down the Line.
    God Bless Her.
    Michael Collins, CMP

    Excerpt from After Sputnik: 50 Years of the Space Age