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The Last Word: Visit to Armstrong Museum triggers memories

Kerry Hubartt

I think putting man on the moon has been one of the most incredible achievements in human history — that “one small step for a man” on July 20, 1969, really was “one giant leap for mankind.”

Those, of course, were the words of that man who first set foot on the powdery surface of the moon at what became called “Tranquility Base” — Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong from Wapakoneta, Ohio, about 69 miles west of Fort Wayne.

I wrote about the Apollo 11 achievement in a column in July, just prior to the actual golden anniversary of the epic journey of Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, who blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16 and landed on the moon’s surface on July 20. Armstrong lowered his left foot onto the moon’s surface at 2:56 UTC (coordinated universal time) on July 21, followed by Aldrin 19 minutes later. Collins, meanwhile, was piloting the command module Columbia in orbit around the moon.

The Eagle, Apollo’s lunar module, took off 21 hours and 36 minutes after landing to rejoin Columbia and head back to Earth, where they splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24.

This time, I’m writing about the Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, which I visited a little more than a week ago — I thought the 50th anniversary year of the moon landing was a good time to make my first trip.

That Armstrong grew up so close to where I live here in Indiana is significant to me — that and the fact he spent four years at Purdue University. And, after all, one of the original pioneers of flight, Wilbur Wright, was born in Indiana in Henry County before his family moved to Dayton, Ohio (just 126 miles from Fort Wayne), where brother Orville was born and the two developed their plans for heavier-than-air flight.

The magnitude of the achievement in landing on the moon and returning safely to earth struck me when I looked inside the Gemini VIII space capsule on display in the Armstrong museum. I almost felt like I was looking inside a Model T Ford in some ways. The interior was old and worn and featured a panel of antique switches that represented a time way before the modern technology we take for granted today.

Imagine the difference in the computer technology used 50 years ago compared to what we have in our iPhones today.

Gemini VIII, which launched on March 16, 1966, was the sixth crewed spaceflight in NASA’s Gemini program, the 12th crewed American flight and 22nd crewed spaceflight of all time. Armstrong was the command pilot on that mission, as well, which conducted the first docking of two spacecraft in orbit. However, it suffered the first critical in-space system failure of a U.S. spacecraft that threatened the lives of Armstrong and astronaut David Scott and forced an immediate abort of the mission. The crew returned to Earth safely, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, south of Japan.

Since Armstrong had resigned his commission in the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1960, it was only the second time a U.S. civilian flew into space. Armstrong was a member of the second group of NASA astronauts. As a test pilot, he flew the X-15 rocket plane at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Armstrong died in 2012 at age 82.

The Armstrong museum also contained many other significant artifacts representing Armstrong’s career as well as Ohio’s other contributions to spaceflight.

Inside the museum was the actual airplane — a yellow Aeronca Champion — in which Armstrong learned to fly at age 15 at the long-gone Port Koneta airfield in Wapakoneta. Also on display were the spacesuits Armstrong wore on both the Gemini and Apollo missions. And I was fascinated to get to see a moon rock brought back to Earth from the Apollo 11 mission. It was a jagged, blackish chunk of vesicular basalt, said to be composed of fragments from the moon’s original crust.

The museum is striking from the outside as you approach from the parking lot. It’s built into the mounded earth around it, topped by a 56-foot moon-shaped dome that houses the Astro Theater, which shows a documentary of the Apollo 11 moon flight. On display outside the museum is the F5D Skylancer Armstrong flew in the early 1960s in developing the abort-launch procedure that would safely return NASA’s spaceplane X-20 DynaSoar back to the runway in case of an emergency.

There was plenty to see and do, including seven interactive exhibits, inside the museum and even more artifacts from the Apollo 11 mission. It’s a pretty sobering experience to see many of the actual pieces of history there as you contemplate the significance of one of history’s greatest events.

–Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.

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