Here at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, we seek to collect, care for, and display some of the nation’s most iconic and impactful aerospace artifacts—and most importantly, share the human stories behind them. As many would agree, the Apollo program is among the most defining aerospace stories of the 20th century, and the Air and Space Museum is privileged to be the guardian of its many objects, not the least being the Apollo 11 command module Columbia that transported Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong to the Moon and back in the summer of 1969. Now, after coursing through the expanse of space and decades of time, Columbia is finally coming home. There are many cool things about being acting director of this museum, but witnessing our team as they safeguard incredibly special artifacts like Columbia rates up there.
On a beautiful, warm autumn morning, the capsule made its “final flight” from our Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport, to its new gallery, Destination Moon, at the transformed Museum on the Mall. Scheduled to open next fall, the gallery will tell the Apollo story in new and impactful ways, relying upon artifacts like the Apollo 11 command module, Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit, remnants of the original Saturn Rocket F-1 engine that launched the mission, and many other objects that, in aggregate, describe how Americans fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s bold challenge of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth” before the decade was out.
To view the spacecraft as it sits today, one cannot help but think of the astronauts’ incredible confine and discomfort. Despite this obvious condition, command module pilot Michael Collins described his surroundings to a listening worldwide audience as “our happy little home.” Never mind that it was a home shirking Earth’s gravitational pull and heading to the Moon through uncharted space at nearly 25,000 miles an hour.
After returning from the Moon and being plucked from the sea, the Apollo 11 capsule went on a circuitous tour around the country, before coming to eventual rest within the walls of the newly-constructed Museum on the Mall in 1976. There it sat on public display for many years until plans to rebuild the Museum necessitated its removal from the building. Before and after another five-city tour on the occasion of the original mission’s 50th anniversary, the spacecraft entered the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar at the Udvar-Hazy Center and underwent detailed cleaning and inspection. Despite the forces of natural decay, Museum conservators pursued the methods and means of ensuring that generations far into the future will have the chance to view Columbia just as it appeared upon its return to Earth on July 24, 1969.
During some of their earlier work to create digital imagery of the cockpit, Museum conservators discovered “graffiti” handwritten by Collins not seen nor known for nearly 50 years, such as a calendar with the Wednesday launch date and subsequent mission days all crossed out, except of course for the landing day itself. Apparently, NASA engineers didn’t sufficiently contemplate the challenge of keeping track of time without sunrises and sunsets, leaving it instead to the command module pilot to scrawl the dates in grease pen on a hidden panel. A more obvious note known for many years was Collin’s praise for “Spacecraft 107-alias Apollo 11 the best ship to come down the line. God bless her.”
With the most recent restoration efforts complete, Columbia was carefully wrapped in multiple layers of protective cover, resembling upon completion a giant “Hershey’s Kisses” chocolate candy. That it occurred two weeks before Halloween might have left some viewers on the Udvar-Hazy Center restoration hangar overlook wondering if we were playing some kind of prank.
But prank it was not, and as noted, the time came when Columbia had to negotiate another 30 miles of travel, albeit by ground, to the Udvar-Hazy Center’s older sibling downtown. Even though the Museum team has been moving artifacts in and out of the Mall building for the last three years as part of its renovation, few artifacts evoke the level of sentiment, care, and concern as Columbia. After all, this is an object unlike any other; it took human explorers to lunar orbit to set foot on another celestial body for the first time.
The time had come for the command module’s journey to its final home. It was secured to the bed of a tractor trailer and marked “oversize.” It was a journey I wanted to be on, to observe, to relish, and, for a moment, vicariously share in the success of others—I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. For the better part of an hour, Columbia and I would be moving together as one, our destination linked just as it was for Mike, Buzz, and Neil. Theirs was surely a more treacherous and worrisome journey, but I couldn’t help but feel connected to them.
After the hard work of many on our Collections team, the task of shepherding this spaceship through 30 miles of earthly obstacles was left to Stephanie Stewart, a team leader in the Museum’s Collection Processing Unit who, among other talents, knows how to pluck, pick, move, set, adjust, and position just about every artifact in the Museum, no matter its size or fragility. Hers is a job unlike any other and reserved to the very few. There isn’t another position description I know of that requires expertise in moving an Apollo command module—those people just don’t exist. And yet here she was, with degrees in art history and museum studies, and a commercial driver’s license to boot, who can maneuver a 53-foot-long tractor trailer as well as, if not better than, any trucker on the road. Nonchalantly, she handed me a radio and said, “buckle up… we’re going for a ride.” Knowing who was in charge I took my seat and we began to pull away from the Udvar-Hazy Center with our carefully secured over-sized chocolate (all 10,000 pounds of it).
We moved along I-66, one of the most congested roadways in the country, with enough construction obstacles to make any reasonable driver want to avoid it altogether. But undaunted by its chaotic condition, Stephanie pressed on and entered the vehicular melee with our “follow me” escort blocking the two lanes we needed to keep commuters at bay.
With remarkable ease and calm, Stephanie safely negotiated our way eastward, eventually intercepting the notorious “Capital Beltway” and I-395 after that.
In the same way airline pilots begin to talk less when passing through 10,000 feet on their final descent, our own “cockpit banter” began to taper off as we crossed the Potomac and neared our destination. A radio call to the waiting Museum crew confirmed that we were near, and it was time for them to make room for Columbia and begin clearing Independence Avenue of vehicles. And just as aircraft landings can be the most stressful and challenging part of an entire flight, we were entering that final phase of our trip when it seemed literally anything and everything could happen—all at the same time. Without a flinch, Stephanie crossed multiple lanes of the crowded D.C. byway, turned right, then left, then right again, and came face to face with a light pole she would have to navigate around. As an eerie and unexpected silence surrounded us, she put the rig into reverse and masterfully backed into an all-too-narrow opening through the construction fence, dodging a dumpster and countless bollards. She simply nailed it. On the first try. Anyone watching knew that they had just witnessed something special, including the motorists in the backed-up traffic who honked in applause.
I served as a naval flight officer in the U.S. Navy, flying F-14 Tomcats off the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, an environment where call signs were more typical than not. As I watched Stephanie back into the construction area, I couldn’t help but think she needed a call sign too. With her cool determination and fearless competence, the call sign “Steel” popped into my head. And I’d like to think that if Michael Collins (who once was himself director of Air and Space) had been here to see Stephanie in action, he would have endorsed that moniker for her as well.
And with that, Spacecraft 107 was unloaded from its perch and wheeled into the Museum. Columbia was finally home.