A robotic arm extends into the spacecraft to scan the interior. (Matt McFarland/The Washington Post)

For almost 40 years, the Apollo 11 command module has rested behind a plastic shield in the National Air and Space Museum.

Now visitors may not have to journey to Washington, D.C., to see inside the craft that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins traveled in during their historic trip to the moon and back. This week, the Smithsonian has begun to 3D scan the vessel to develop a digital tour that anyone with an Internet connection could take.

“We recognize that it has enormous significance — cultural significance as well as engineering and technical significance,” said Allan A. Needell, who curates the Smithsonian’s Apollo collection. “The challenge is how to translate the experience of an object for a new generation who doesn’t have a personal familiarity with it.”

The Smithsonian’s digitization team is working with the 3-D design company Autodesk to capture photos and laser scans of the inside and exterior of the command module. They’ll then mash the images and 3-D scans together for a colorful 3-D representation of the spacecraft.


Here’s a early look at what the 3-D scanning has captured. (Screenshot via Smithsonian Institution)

All parties involved call it their most challenging project yet, given the craft’s small size — no one can climb inside to capture images — and its titanium surfaces, which do not accurately reflect the lasers used to map the craft. There are also structural beams inside the spacecraft that block the laser, depending on the angle it is shooting at. Lighting is also a challenge. On Monday morning, one team member shined a flashlight through a window to help illuminate the cabin.

Eventually the plan is for students — or anyone — to be able to download a digital representation of the spacecraft and 3-D print a small replica. While all details of the project aren’t final, there’s talk of potentially using virtual reality to let someone put on a headset and be immersed in the experience of the cabin.


Smithsonian and Autodesk employees conduct a 3-D scan of the spacecraft. (Matt McFarland/The Washington Post)

“We have an opportunity to basically present to them an experience which is visually almost identical to if you were allowed to go in and lie down on one of those seats,” Needell said.

The team scanning the command module is clogging their hard drives with data from a handful of cameras and a $200,000 laser scanner. Following four days of scanning this week, they’ll be spending two months sifting through it all. In February, they plan to revisit the module and do more scanning.

This is a convenient time to do the scanning because the museum is developing a new gallery based around the command module. It will open by the end of the decade, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing — July 20, 2019.


The team is using cameras and laser scanners to capture every crevice in the spacecraft. Here we see its exterior. (Matt McFarland/The Washington Post)