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The Last Time the Command Module Columbia Toured

Posted on Sat, February 25 2017
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This week, we announced that the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia, the original spacecraft that carried the first astronauts to walk on the Moon, and more than 20 additional flown artifacts from the Apollo 11 mission, will go on a national tour to four major American cities: Houston, Saint Louis, Pittsburgh, and Seattle. The tour coincides with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in July of 1969. While this will mark the first time the spacecraft has left the Smithsonian since it was added to the collection in 1971, it is not the first time the Command Module Columbia toured the United States.

The Command Module Columbia is among the most prized and popular artifacts in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum collection. It was launched atop a Saturn V rocket on July 16, 1969 carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins on the first lunar landing mission. The spacecraft was their home as they traveled to the Moon and back. On July 24, 1969, it reentered Earth’s atmosphere and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean to bring all three astronauts safely home.

Before it was entrusted to the Smithsonian for preservation and public display, Columbia went on another, now largely forgotten, journey. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) organized and executed an ambitious public tour of a Moon rock, Neil Armstrong’s lunar extravehicular activity (EVA) spacesuit, several small items that had returned from the mission, and the Command Module Columbia. Stopping at 49 state capitals, the District of Columbia, and Anchorage Alaska, the tour provided Americans with a unique opportunity to view and marvel at these historic items. When the tour was over, in 1971, Columbia was relocated to Washington, DC. It has been cared for and displayed by the Smithsonian Institution ever since, until now.

As you prepare to see Columbia in one of the four stops of the tour, relive its first journey across the US here with pages from NASA’s 1971 report for the “Fifty-State National Tour” along with images from that period.

  • Document

    The final report of NASA’s Fifty-State Tour issued in June 1971.

  • Document

    According to this, 3 ¼ million Americans attended the tour.

  • Document

    The Command Module, and supporting artifacts, traveled nearly 26,000 miles for the tour, including trips by sea to Alaska and Hawaii.

  • Document

    Hawaii had the largest turnout with 135,000 people visiting.

  • Document

    Each state put their own spin on hosting the tour. In Dover, Delaware, a colonial regiment band opened the exhibition.

  • Document

    The tour prompted many states to declare “Space Week” or “Apollo Days” for the duration of the tour in their state.

  • Document

    A Norman Rockwell painting of the Lunar Module on the Moon was included in the tour.

  • Document

    Maryland had the lowest turnout with 32,500 visitors.

  • Document

    Alaska and Hawaii had the highest turnout of visitors.

  • Document

    To get to Hawaii and Alaska, the Command Module spent nearly a month at sea for each trip.

  • Trailer surrounded by crowd.

    Apollo 11 Tour visits Jefferson City, Missouri July 1970. Courtesy of the Missouri State Archives

  • Three people gaze at spacecraft.

    Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, a Congressman, and Mrs. Richard Ichord look at the Command Module. Courtesy of the Missouri State Archives

  • Astronauts on stage.

    Astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins at the opening of the tour in Jefferson City, Missouri in July 1970. Courtesy of the Missouri State Archives

  • Group stands in front of tour trailer.

    Ribbon cutting for the exhibition in Jefferson City, Missouri. Courtesy of the Missouri State Archives

Are you planning to visit Columbia when it goes on tour this October?