Armstrong Air and Space Museum
For galactic pioneers who've dreamed of some day living on the moon, a visit to the Armstrong Air and Space Museum may be the best earthly option. It was built, according to its literature, "to resemble a futuristic moon base," or at least how moon bases were envisioned in 1972, when the museum opened. Set into an earthen berm, its planetarium dome glowing at night like a perpetual moonrise, the museum is in fact a windowless bunker, perfectly suited to the vacuum of space. Inside, several of its exhibits hang from brackets bolted into its poured concrete walls.
Neil Armstrong, the museum's namesake, was the 39-year old pilot and aerospace engineer who commanded Apollo 11 in 1969, and became the first man to walk on the moon. He was born only a few miles from the museum, which pays tribute to its local hero even though the scrupulously private Armstrong had nothing to do with the place.
On the museum property, there's a jet fighter, a sealed Apollo capsule replica, and a Gemini capsule replica open on one side for visitor photo ops. The museum has also erected a granite memorial to crew lost in the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia shuttle accidents.
Indoors, the museum exhibits progress chronologically, starting with quick review of Armstrong's early years. The items include his Boy Scout scarf and parts from his model rockets -- then blast off into the NASA heyday of the 1960s. Visitors peer into the actual Gemini capsule that Armstrong piloted in 1966, and admire his astronaut survival machete. Exhibits such as "Soviets: Falling Behind" and "Apollo I: Human Tragedy" set the scene for Armstrong's triumph, "Pow! To the Moon."
The museum's most treasured item is a golf ball-size lunar chunk brought back on Apollo 11, displayed behind bulletproof glass. Detailed space food and how-do-you-poop-in-space exhibits share a gallery with Armstrong's spare moon suit and a case of his post-moon trophies and medals, from groups such as The Society of Experimental Test Pilots.
Tributes, both corporate and amateur, line the walls. A life-size portrait by David Philip Wilson shows Armstrong as he's stepping onto the moon. Wilson, who primarily painted portraits of children, rendered Armstrong's face peering from his oversized spacesuit like a kid bundled up for a snowball fight.
To get to the rest of the exhibits you have to navigate the "Infinity Room," a mirrored hallway with tiny lights that gives visitors "a glimpse of walking in space," according to its accompanying sign. The Infinity Room leads to the Astro Theater (the museum's glowing dome) where visitors can watch an astronaut POV film of a lunar landing.
Exiting the other side, visitors encounter more Armstrong tributes and a showcase that explains how modern $100 sneakers would have been impossible without moon boot technology, and how space insulation is the forerunner of today's mylar party balloons. In the gift shop you can buy a reproduction of the Wapakoneta Daily News from the day Neil walked on the moon, with a photo of his nervous parents on the front page.
Armstrong, for all his fame, wasn't alone on the moon with Apollo 11. His partner, Buzz Aldrin, has been far more visible to the public than the reclusive Armstrong ever was. But until Buzz builds his own moon base, Armstrong's museum is the destination of choice among frustrated lunar explorers. There's really no alternative; we're not going back to the real moon any time soon.