“We choose to go to the moon,” President John F. Kennedy declared in Houston in September 1962. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
That audacious goal was achieved less than seven years later, and as we approach the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taking their first steps on the Sea of Tranquility, the Washington area is abuzz with commemorations. Expect model rockets flying through the air, priceless artifacts on display and historic footage projected on the Washington Monument.
The National Air and Space Museum is keeper of some of America’s most important space artifacts — rockets, spacesuits, a touchable moon rock, the space shuttle Discovery — which makes it a natural focus for the area’s biggest celebrations. There are numerous free events and special exhibits at the main museum and the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, but there are plenty of other happenings around the region, too.
Never mind that no human has set foot on the moon since 1972, as return missions have been endorsed and then scrapped. The golden anniversary of Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins’s voyage is a chance to celebrate previously unthinkable scientific achievement, America’s victory in the space race, and maybe get a new generation of astronauts and scientists hooked on planetary exploration.
Neil Armstrong's spacesuit returns to the Air and Space Museum
In July 2015, the Smithsonian launched an ambitious Kickstarter campaign that hoped to raise $500,000 to preserve and display the spacesuit Armstrong wore when he took his first steps on the moon. It hit its goal in five days and ultimately raised more than $700,000. The restored suit, which hasn’t been on display since 2006, will eventually be a centerpiece of the museum’s Destination Moon exhibit, currently scheduled to open in 2022. But for now, the suit, which is still covered with lunar dust, will be shown at the main museum in a “state-of-the-art display case” in the Wright Brothers exhibit, near a piece of the original Wright Brothers Flyer that Armstrong carried on the Apollo mission. On display during regular museum hours. Independence Avenue at Sixth Street SW. Free.
Neil Armstrong spacesuit at Nationals Park
As part of the restoration of Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit, Smithsonian researchers made a 3-D scan that has since been turned into a series of life-size statues on display at Major League Baseball stadiums throughout the country — including Nationals Park. Located on the main concourse near the home plate gate, the statue has interactive portions that, when scanned with a smartphone camera, show videos about Apollo 11.
On view during home games through the end of the season. 1500 South Capitol St. SE. Free with admission to the game. The Nationals’ next home game is July 22.
Saturn V rocket and 'Go for the Moon' on the Washington Monument
For five nights, the Washington Monument will be turned into the tallest projection screen in town. A life-size, 363-foot image of a Saturn V rocket will be projected onto the 555-foot monument July 16-18 between 9:30 and 11:30 p.m. The Saturn V, the tallest and most powerful rocket ever built, carried most of the Apollo missions into space. On July 19 and 20, the projections will change to “Apollo 50: Go for the Moon,” a 17-minute program shown on the monument and a series of screens on the Mall. (A public viewing area with the best sightlines will be in front of the Smithsonian Castle, and the projections will begin at 9:30, 10:30 and 11:30 p.m.) July 16-18, 9:30 to 11:30 p.m.; July 19-20, 9:30, 10:30 and 11:30 p.m. Free.
Apollo 11 Film Festival at the National Archives
The National Archives is celebrating the anniversary with discussions, documents and documentaries. A display in the building’s East Rotunda features official government records and plans for the Apollo 11 mission, while the William G. McGowan Theater hosts a series of events, including a screening of the recent “Apollo 11” documentary followed by a roundtable with director Todd Douglas Miller and NASA’s chief historian (July 18 at 7 p.m.); the original 1970 NASA documentary “Moonwalk One,” which goes into detail about the moon walk and mission control (July 19 at 3 p.m.) and the critically acclaimed 2018 Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man” (July 20 at 2 p.m.). All events are free, but reservations are recommended. July 17-20. Times vary. Free.
Apollo 50 Festival outside the Air and Space Museum
“Go for the Moon” may be past some kids’ bedtimes, but this festival outside the Air and Space Museum is decidedly more family-friendly, with hands-on activities starring the cast of PBS’ animated “Ready Jet Go” and Lego-building projects, and booths covering an array of topics, such as Mars rovers and everyday technology that was originally developed for NASA. July 18-19, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; July 20, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Free.
Discover the Moon Day at the Air and Space Museum
The best day of the year for selenophiles covers a wide spectrum of moon-related topics. Meet curators who will discuss Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit and meteorites from the moon; see the lunar surface in 3-D, recent images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter or a planetarium show about lunar expeditions; walk in Armstrong and Aldrin’s footsteps and learn about their experiments; or try piloting a mini-robot explorer. There’s also a story time for the youngest visitors. July 19, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Free.
Model-rocket contest at Goddard Space Flight Center
Only hardcore space fans probably realize that NASA’s oldest space flight facility isn’t at Cape Canaveral or in Houston: It’s the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, which continues to operate the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Hubble Space Telescope, among other key duties. Its visitors center covers current missions but also includes an outdoor “Rocket Garden” with full-size rockets to see. The star, especially now, is “a genuine nonflying ‘boilerplate’ mock-up” of the Apollo crew capsule, which was used for training. There’s also a moon rock brought back by Apollo 14.
To celebrate the anniversary, Goddard and the National Association of Rocketry are hosting a model-rocket contest that includes a narrated launch of models of historic NASA spacecraft and a contest to see which rocketeers can land a model rocket closest to a site on “the moon,” with prizes for the top adult and youth participants.
July 20, noon to 4 p.m. (registration begins on-site at noon). 9432 Greenbelt Rd., Greenbelt. Free.
'NSO Project — Apollo 11 @ 50' and 'NSO Pops: Apollo 11: A 50th Anniversary' at the Kennedy Center
Members of the National Symphony Orchestra are performing two separate concerts on July 20 to honor Apollo 11. The first, “NSO Project — Apollo 11 @ 50,” is a program honoring “the past, present, and future of space exploration.” Later that night in the Concert Hall, “NSO Pops: Apollo 11: A 50th Anniversary” marries music and video, including performances by Pharrell Williams and Kacey Musgraves, an appearance by Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, a world premiere by composer Michael Giacchino, and a never-before-seen 1997 video of David Bowie performing “Space Oddity.”
July 20. 2700 F St. NW. NSO Project: 6 p.m. Free. NSO Pops: 9 p.m. $129-$149.
"The Eagle Has Landed" at the Air and Space Museum
At 10:56 p.m. Eastern time on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon. The exact moment of the golden anniversary will be marked at the Air and Space Museum, which is staying open until 2 a.m. for the occasion. Highlights include space trivia competitions, stargazing, a spacesuit fashion show, scavenger hunts through the museum, and a performance by Quindar, an electronic music duo that remixes NASA’s audio archive. The museum’s theater will show a variety of films throughout the night, including documentaries and the short comedy “To Plant a Flag,” capped with an after-midnight screening of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” July 20, 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Films require free or purchased tickets.
'By the Light of the Silvery Moon: A Century of Lunar Photographs' and 'Moons and Celestial Bodies' film series at the National Gallery of Art
Most Apollo commemorations focus on the underlying science of the missions: massive rocket engines that get payloads into space or spacesuits that can withstand a wide spectrum of lunar conditions. The National Gallery of Art, though, wants visitors to use the other side of their brains, seeing Charles Le Morvan’s 1914 photogravures as not just maps of the Moon, but art. The exhibition includes stereoscope prints of the full moon taken by 19th-century photographers and more familiar images of the surface from the Apollo 11 astronauts.
This weekend, the “Moons and Celestial Bodies” film series shows how space travel has been portrayed on-screen, from the silent 1902 classic “A Trip to the Moon” (July 20 at 3 p.m.) to 1983’s “The Right Stuff” (July 20 at 11 a.m.) by way of the 1976 cult favorite “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” starring David Bowie (July 21 at 4:30 p.m.).
Exhibition: Through Jan. 5. Films: July 20-21, times vary. Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Free.
'One Giant Leap' at Maryland Science Center
The Maryland Science Center in Baltimore has a fixation on space, thanks to its popular planetarium and a permanent interactive exhibition space titled “SpaceLink,” which lets kids perform experiments to discover the composition of a comet, or, at special events, meet astronauts who lived on the International Space Station.
For the anniversary, the Science Center staff created a special planetarium show, “One Small Step,” that documents the round-trip journey to the moon, while hands-on activities include crafting “DIY astronaut tools.” A special Saturday program also includes lectures, building a lunar lander and a chance to see a moon rock.
“One Small Step” is shown twice daily through July 31. 601 Light St., Baltimore. $19.95-$25.95; “SpaceLink” and the planetarium shows are included in admission price.
Space Window at Washington National Cathedral
There are pieces of the moon scattered all over the world, on display in museums in Berlin, Sydney, Montreal and Annapolis (at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum). There’s a piece you can touch at the National Air and Space Museum. But the most beautiful and unexpected place to encounter the moon is at Washington National Cathedral.
In 1974, the Apollo 11 crew presented the cathedral with a seven gram, 3.6 billion-year-old sliver of basalt collected on the first moon walk and preserved inside a nitrogen-filled container. The rock sits on the south side of the nave at the heart of a stained glass design covering three lancet windows, depicting a vast cosmos of colorful swirls and dark celestial globes.
Viewable during the cathedral’s daily operating hours. 3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW. $8-$12, free on Sundays.