February 6, 2020

Moon Shot: How the National Air and Space Museum Brought the Moon Landing to Earth

  • By: Priya Chhaya

Some events in the past feel almost larger than life, moments only understood in a particular place in time. Once in a while we find a stand-in, a place so imbued with meaning that an audience feels transported.

The events of July 2019 began with a simple factoid provided to give visitors a sense of scale: “Did you know that the Washington Monument is roughly the same size as the Saturn V rocket?”

With that kernel of an idea, as part of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing, residents and visitors to Washington, D.C. were treated to an unusual sight—a projection of the Apollo 11 mission’s Saturn V rocket in an unexpected place.

A capacity crowd fills the National Mall awaiting the "Apollo 50: Go for the Moon" show as seen from the top of the Smithsonian Castle.

photo by: National Air and Space Museum by Eric Long

A capacity crowd fills the National Mall awaiting the "Apollo 50: Go for the Moon" show as seen from the top of the Smithsonian Castle.

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM), this illustration of size manifested into a gathering of crowds to watch Apollo 50: Go For the Moon, a multimedia show that combined, music, light, projection mapping (the art of turning an irregular shaped object into a screen for projection purposes), and archival footage. The event centered the mission to the moon around President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech, which laid out the landing as the culmination of thousands of years of technological advances, punctuated by footage of the actual launch day and of crowds watching from around the country in 1969.

The remarkable sight was made all the more powerful by its projection onto the Washington Monument and its live viewership of more than half a million people on the National Mall. Given that the National Mall is often used as a gathering place for major events in our country—inaugurations, festivals, protests, national mourning—it carries a unique power and gravitas that, in the case of this project, was able to bridge generations, unite citizens, and recreate the experience of standing in a crowd uncertain of what was to come.

The idea for Go For the Moon started almost two years earlier when Katherine Moyer and Nicholas Partridge from NASM decided to brainstorm out-of-the-box ideas for the anniversary. For Moyer and Partridge (and the museum), the focus on the 50th anniversary and its “living history” was critical because, as Moyer says, “we have people from 0-49 that were not [yet born], but we still have people with very lucid memories [of the event], so we can have that cross-generational conversation.”

In order to start that dialogue with something dramatic, Moyer and Partridge kept coming back to the earlier comparison—that the Saturn V rocket would fit onto the Washington Monument. Armed with that knowledge as well as an interest in projection mapping, they developed a partnership between the U.S. Department of the Interior and 59 Productions to produce Go For the Moon.

It would have been easy to merely stop at a simple projection of the rocket, but Moyer and Partridge (pushed by the creative vision of 59 Productions) were not content with that. They wanted something that moved the audience, that reminded them of the intangible feeling that occurred as the world stood and watched the Apollo 11 mission make human and technological history.

As Partridge says, “we wanted to stop people in their tracks, we wanted them to feel emotions akin to what their parents would have felt when they were watching this live.” For Moyer, it was also a matter of conveying “the uncertainty of [success] when it was actually happening. You didn’t know if they were going to make it, or not make it. The whole world was holding its breath.”

A young girl takes a photo as a capacity crowd on the National Mall awaits the "Apollo 50: Go for the Moon" show, July 20, 2019.

photo by: National Air and Space Museum photo by Jim Preston

A young girl takes a photo as a capacity crowd on the National Mall awaits the "Apollo 50: Go for the Moon" show, July 20, 2019.

For them, there was no better place to achieve this sense of pageantry and awe than the National Mall, a place already filled with monuments to American history.

I feel this same sense of inspiration and connection whenever I walk across the Mall. However, as I sat on the grass that night, watching the sun set on July 19, I was not prepared for what was to come. Over the course of 17 minutes, I felt exhilaration, wonder, and pride. And when video screens panned over the crowds captured in July 1969, I felt like I was one of them. It didn’t matter that I knew already how the story ended. Rather, it was a reminder of what humanity is capable of when we reach for greatness.

Apollo 50: Go For the Moon was sponsored by Boeing with additional support by Raytheon.

While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

This May, our Preservation Month theme is “People Saving Places” to shine the spotlight on everyone doing the work of saving places—in big ways and small—and inspiring others to do the same!