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July 20, 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The groundbreaking journey began on July 16, 1969, when NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins launched into space from Florida's Kennedy Space Center. Four days later, on July 20, half a billion people across the globe — or about one-seventh of the Earth's population at the time — watched Armstrong and Aldrin descend the lunar module ladder to become the first humans ever to set foot on the moon. The grainy footage, along with Armstrong's now-famous quote, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," remain forever etched in the minds of those that witnessed the event live.
The golden anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission — the first of NASA's six successful manned moon landings — is being marked with numerous events across the US. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. kicked off a five-day-long celebration with a life-size projection of the Saturn V rocket on the Washington Monument on July 16, 17, and 18. The majestic holograph of the iconic 363-foot-long rocket, which carried the astronauts to the moon in 1969, will be replaced on July 19 and 20, with a 17-minute film about the Apollo 11 launch.
Armstrong's original spacesuit is also on public display, for the first time in 13 years. Unveiled on July 16, it had been removed from the Air and Space Museum's gallery floor in 2006 due to signs of deterioration. However, thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign, which raised $700,000 for the museum in 2015, the garment has now been fully restored. The exhibit also includes X-rays of the suit, allowing visitors to take a peek inside what Cathleen Lewis, curator and spacesuit historian at the museum, refers to as a "human-shaped spacecraft." The celebrations will end with an elaborate evening party on July 20.
NASA plans to commemorate the event with a live broadcast from the Kennedy Space Center, the historic Apollo mission control room at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Airing on July 19 at 1 p.m. ET., NASA’s Giant Leaps: Past and Future – Celebrating Apollo 50th as We Go Forward to the Moon, will feature a history of previous moon missions. It will also provide viewers a glimpse into the US Space Agency's plans to return to the moon by 2024.
The US Space Agency also announced plans to unseal a never-studied sample of moon rock and distribute it to nine, carefully selected teams of scientists for examination. The lunar dirt is part of the 842 pounds of materials the astronauts brought back during the six successful missions to the moon. While scientists have examined most over the years, three samples — from Apollo missions 15, 16, and 17 — were saved for the time when more advanced technology would allow for improved analysis. The sample selected contains 800 grams (1.8 pounds) of lunar material that was vacuum-sealed on the Moon and brought to Earth by Apollo 17 astronauts Harrison Schmitt and Gene Cernan in 1972.
"Now we can go to a mineral, and we can look at the very fine details, down to almost the width of a human hair," said University of Arizona assistant professor and astronomer Jessica Barnes. Her research team, one of the nine selected to examine the moon soil, is charged with determining how water is locked inside the Moon's minerals.
The US Navy is participating in the celebrations by launching an interactive video game called Journey to the Moon on July 19. Available on Google Home, Android devices, and all smartphones with the Google Assistant app, it will allow players to complete a moon mission by correctly answering a series of multiple-choice questions.
Hotels in Houston, Texas, from where the historic mission was controlled, are getting into the spirit with special packages to attract visitors. Among the most extravagant, is the $10,000 mystical space journey being offered by the Post Oak Hotel. The price includes a two-night stay for up to two guests in one of the hotel's luxury suites, a $300 credit for food and drinks, and a spa treatment. The highlight, however, will be a helicopter ride to the Johnson Space Center, where the guests will be treated to a private tour of the facility and lunch with an astronaut.
Those outside the US can celebrate the special anniversary by visiting one of the ten "Museum of the Moon" art installations touring science museums worldwide till the end of the year. The brainchild of British artist Luke Jerram, each exhibit, suspended high above the ground, is accompanied by simulated moonlight and music, making the experience truly magical. Though Jerram's "moons" measure just 23 feet in diameter, or about 1/500,000 the diameter of the real moon, they allow individuals to see a realistic reproduction of the moon's surface.
Alex Young, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, believes the excitement surrounding the Apollo 11 landing is justified. "The mission is one of the biggest events in the history of space and gave us a completely new perspective on our place in the universe," he says. "It also paved the way for future space exploration and opened the door to boundless curiosity and discovery about space."
Resources: NPR.org, airandspace.si.edu, smithsonianmag.com, CNN.com, NASA.gov