40th Anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon Landing

July 17, 2009 Planetarium visitors can experience Apollo 11-related, hands-on activities and giveaways now through July 31. There will be an all-day event complete with cake and other festivities to mark the moon walk on July 20. (See more events in the list below.)

Award-winning historian Craig Nelson (www.craignelson.us) will discuss the Apollo 11 mission and his new book, Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, during an afternoon lecture in the Adler's Milky Way Gallery on Friday, July 17 from 2 to 3 p.m. In his book, Nelson recounts the story of a twentieth-century pilgrimage; a voyage into the unknown motivated by politics, faith, science and wonder that changed the course of history. But the story of Apollo 11 is, in the end, fundamentally a human one, featuring the genuinely heroic - and idiosyncratic - astronauts, their stoic wives, distracted children and the tech teams at Mission Control (which always smelled of burned coffee, cigarettes and Mexican takeout), all of whom are unforgettable characters in this thrilling account of a journey to one of the last frontiers of the human imagination. The lecture is free with general museum admission. Seating is first come, first served.

In Rocket Men, Nelson reminds us why Apollo 11 was the greatest adventure of the 20th century, and the greatest technological achievement of all time. Nelson inspires readers to appreciate the mind-boggling accomplishment. Though it occurred only forty years ago, the flight of Apollo 11 has, for a number of reasons, faded from public consciousness, Nelson says. In part because romance of NASA has fallen away with projects like the space shuttle--in part because we have seen the iconic images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface so often they have lost some of their mystery and magic; and in part because the national mood of idealism of the 1960s has given way to civic indifference, if not downright cynicism, the author adds.

When, driven by the startling and unnerving exploits of the Soviet Union in outer space, President John F. Kennedy announced in the early 1960s that America would reach the moon by the end of the decade, even most of the hands at NASA didn't believe it would be possible, Nelson points out. There were simply too many unknown factors to consider (including questions as fundamental as, What was the moon's surface made of, and would any spaceship that landed on it simply sink into it like quicksand?), too much technology to be invented, and too little time. But in a massive deployment of talent, money, and the round-the-clock efforts of hundreds of thousands of people, on July 20, 1969, the first human being set foot on another celestial body—an event witnessed by millions around the world on an epochal live television broadcast.

Rocket Men is the thrilling, moving, dramatic, and often humorous story of this landmark event in our history, revealing as never before its human side. The author has combed through the 23,000 pages of NASA oral histories to write an account that fully honors its epic subject. The book opens with the nail-biting preparation of the Saturn rocket for takeoff—"nail-biting" because most NASA engineers believed the mission had about a 50/50 chance of succeeding—and closes with the rocket's leaving the earth's atmosphere; the second part traces the history of rocketry from the closing days of WWII up through the tragic Apollo 1 fire, which killed three astronauts in a test run on the launch pad; and the third part is the riveting narrative of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins's voyage to the moon.

Rocket Men is filled with wonderful vignettes of ex-Nazi scientists who find themselves on the streets of Huntsville, Alabama; of the long-suffering and fearsomely brave astronaut wives, who have to endure the daily invasions of their lives by the ravenous press; of pigs suffocating on rocket test flights; of the task Armstrong and Aldrin feared most on the moon: getting the American flag to stand upright in the hard surface; and of the heartbreaking fates of Armstrong and Aldrin once the publicity and adulation following the moon flight wore off.

Nelson is the author of several books, including Rocket Men, The First Heroes, Thomas Paine (winner of the 2007 Henry Adams Prize), and Let's Get Lost (short-listed for W.H. Smith's Book of the Year). His writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, Salon, The New England Review, Reader's Digest, The New York Observer, Popular Science, and a host of other publications; he has been profiled in Variety, Interview, Publishers Weekly, and Time Out. Besides working at a zoo, in Hollywood, and being an Eagle Scout and a Fuller Brush Man, he was a vice president and executive editor of Harper & Row, Hyperion, and Random House, where he oversaw the publishing of twenty New York Times' bestsellers. He lives in Greenwich Village.

For more information, visit the author's website www.craignelson.us

Q & A with Craig Nelson author of Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon

Q. In researching this book, what surprised you the most?

A. How easily Apollo could have failed and how incredibly dangerous space travel is. I went to Kennedy to simultaneously research their archives and experience a shuttle launch from the same pad used by Apollo 11. A NASA publicist offered me two places to watch; with the photographers, or from the VIP section. When I pointed out that the both of these were really far from the pad, and asked if there wasn't anything closer, she explained that, since Apollo, the closest viewers were allowed was 3.5 miles away, because if a rocket blew up during ignition and liftoff, it would explode with 4/5ths the power of an atomic bomb, hurling 100-pound shrapnel for a radius of 3 miles.

I'd just been to the NASA archives in Washington where I'd read through one Apollo executive's daily reports, an encyclopedia of failures, disasters, and hopelessness, and had come across the (at least) three times that Neil Armstrong had almost died while working for NASA in the years before Apollo 11. These discoveries made the story more urgent and compelling than I'd ever imagined.

Q. What are astronauts really like?

A. Like most Americans, before working on Rocket Men my image of astronauts was a mix of jock cowboy daredevils (from the book and movie The Right Stuff) and the conservative, military, people-next-door portrayals of Life magazine. And what I found out was that, even though these characterizations are somewhat true, they are only a midge of the picture.

The astronauts are much smarter and more interesting than they've been portrayed — two of my favorites, Mike Collins and Alan Bean, now spend much of their time painting, which is not exactly what you'd expect from macho Right Stuff guys — but what I think is surprising is how diverse a group the corps really was. Wally Schirra loved playing outrageous pranks, for one example, while Neil Armstrong had such a dry sense of humor that most journalists interviewing him didn't get the jokes. Looking at his pre-NASA resume, Buzz Aldrin would seem to be the perfect astronaut, but he was at first rejected, and then wasn't all that popular with the rest of the corps. In many ways, Glenn and Armstrong seem so similar as to be related, but Glenn had the political sociability to become a U.S. Senator, a quality anathema to Armstrong.

And, besides having to be accepted into the training programs for military pilots, and then test pilots, Apollo astronauts had to have advanced science or engineering degrees, and were extensively involved in NASA's science and engineering R+D. In the run-up to Apollo 11's launch, Collins worked with space suit development; Aldrin, on docking and rendezvous; and Armstrong on lunar landing simulation.

Q. Hasn't there been enough written about this story already?

A. What I discovered was a story of unsung heroes — that 400,000 people across the United States worked to put Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon, and between interviews and archives, I was able to let them speak for themselves about what it was like to take part in this immense national achievement. So this book became, in a way, the human side of Apollo.

At the same time, the science and engineering of how this was done is just amazing and not well understood by anyone outside the space elite, since things were so much more primitive forty years ago than they are today. NASA subcontractors used the term LOL, for example, not to mean 'laughing out loud' but 'little old ladies,' because that was the workforce using glue pots to assemble the inner bladders of Armstrong and Aldrin's spacesuits, and weaving the memory cores of their ship's computers.

Also, when you look at the global tour that Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins made after they returned from their mission, you can clearly see that moment when the United States of America was the most admired nation in the world. It wouldn't be so bad for our country to achieve that position again.

Q. Why did Americans go to the Moon?

A. The answer was blazingly simple at the time — to beat the Russians, of course! The real story is far more complicated, and interesting. While the Soviet Union held a clear lead in the Space Race for 11 years (from October 1957 to December 1968, a mere 7 months before Apollo 11, when Apollo 8 circled the Moon), the United States additionally suffered a host of other international incidents — from the U2 embarrassment through the Bay of Pigs, a Communist triumph in Laos, and a scandal in Congo — so many that the country and its new President, John Kennedy, needed a epic achievement to counter this litany of humiliation. If JFK hadn't had such a rough first few months in office; if he hadn't seen the outpouring of public support for Alan Shepard, the first American in space; if he hadn't been assassinated; and if he hadn't been replaced by Lyndon Johnson, who felt honor bound to fulfill the great majority of Kennedy's executive pledges, it's difficult to believe that Americans would have gotten to the Moon "before this decade is out."

Q. What does the future hold for NASA?

A. One of the great ironies of this history is that NASA essentially originated as a global public relations endeavor, yet the great majority of its employees loathe public relations. If its P.R. efforts were as good today as its science and engineering, the agency would hold nearly the same level of admiration and love in American hearts that it had during the Glenn and Armstrong era. How many Americans know (to name a few examples) what was learned from the moon rocks brought back by Apollo; or what the International Space Station will be used for; or what NASA satellites monitoring the Earth have revealed; or what its robots have discovered on Mars, Venus, Mercury, and beyond? Because so few taxpayers know so little of what the agency accomplishes (outside of breathtaking Shuttle liftoff and Hubble space photos), when NASA tries to launch epic missions (such as its current lunar base and voyage to Mars), the price seems too high. It's very likely, however, that another Space Race could begin with China, India, Russia, or the European Union, and when a foreign spaceship lands IN the Sea of Tranquility, removes the U.S. flag and plants its own, we'll see what the American public thinks NASA should be achieving...

One Small Step: Apollo 11 40th Anniversary: More Events at Adler Planetarium

All Month Long (Through July 31)
Check out rare footage from the Apollo 11 mission, including the historic Moon landing, which will be on display in the Adler's popular exhibition Shoot for the Moon which features real artifacts from the Apollo missions. Explore the surface of the Moon using the new, interactive Moon Wall, a screen 13 feet wide and 6 feet tall displaying the latest lunar images. Choose to serve as navigator and use a joystick to fly over a 3-D model of the Moon. Or, serve as an investigator, and capture high-resolution images from the surface of the Moon. Write a personalized message to the Apollo 11 crew in the Thank You Books located in the Shoot for the Moon exhibition. The books will be sent to NASA and shared with the Apollo 11 astronauts following the month-long celebration.

Every day guests will receive a free commemorative Apollo 11 poster with paid museum admission (while supplies last). Each week, a different Apollo 11 image will be featured. Collect them all! The posters can be picked up in the Adler's Infinity Shop. There will also be a daily drawing to win Adler prizes, including an Adler family membership. Guests can view the Sun safely through the Adler's special solar telescopes everyday on the Telescope Terrace from 1 – 3 p.m. (weather permitting). And the Adler's Shoot for the Moon exhibition highlights the exciting stories of space exploration – including the Apollo missions – and America's bold plans to return to the Moon in the year 2020.

The Adler has several great Moon-themed space shows. The animated 3-D Fly Me to the Moon space show traces the journey of three starry-eyed bugs who stow away on the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon. Families with younger children will enjoy traveling to the Moon with Elmo in the One World, One Sky: Big Bird's Adventure Planetarium Show. One World, One Sky: Big Bird's Adventure is an original planetarium show based on the popular children's show Sesame Street. Join your favorite friends Big Bird, Elmo and their friend from China, Hu Hu Zhu for an exciting adventure on the Moon!

Every Tuesday in July
Tour the Adler's Doane Observatory, home of Chicago's largest telescope. Take a peek at the Sun through the Doane's special solar telescope every Tuesday from 1 – 3 p.m. (weather permitting).

July 20 - The 40th Anniversary of the Moon Landing
What's a celebration without cake? In addition to the regular month-long activities and giveaways, visitors can enjoy a free piece of Lunar Landing Cake (while supplies last) at 3:17 p.m., the exact time Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. The Adler will also stay open until 10 p.m. for a free evening observing event. In addition to telescope viewing, visitors can touch a real Moon Rock, only at the evening event. This is a rare opportunity and the only place in Chicago where visitors can have this hands-on experience. They can also meet an astronomer in the Adler's Space Visualization Lab (SVL); see the space shows TimeSpace, One World, One Sky: Big Bird's Adventure, Cosmic Collisions, Fly Me to the Moon and Night Sky Live! – featuring a special trivia game; enjoy hands-on activities and explore the museum's many exhibitions, including the new Telescopes: Through the Looking Glass exhibition. All indoor activities require paid admission.

More about Shoot for the Moon
We've been to the Moon. We're going back. What part will you play in our next space adventure? This permanent exhibition highlights the stories of space exploration and America's bold plans to return to the Moon. The exhibition begins with A Journey with Jim Lovell and features the fully-restored Gemini 12 spacecraft and the Lovell Collection of personal space artifacts. In the second gallery, Mission Moon, young visitors discover the thrills and dangers of being an explorer and imagine their own futures in space.

Location and Travel Information
The Adler Planetarium is located at 1300 South Lake Shore Drive on the shores of Lake Michigan on Chicago's beautiful Museum Campus. Exit Lake Shore Drive at the 18th Street exit. Cash-only parking is available in the lot adjacent to the Adler for $16. The Adler is serviced daily by CTA #146 and #130 buses. Metra Electric and South Shore trains stop at nearby Roosevelt Road station. CTA Red, Green and Orange lines are approximately a one-mile walk from the Museum Campus.

The Universe Package includes unlimited space shows, general admission and your choice of historical Atwood Sphere Experience or a special guided tour; $23 (adults); $21 (adult–Chicago residents); $19 (children 3 - 17); $18 (children 3 - 17–Chicago residents); Children ages 2 and under admitted free.

About the Adler
The Adler Planetarium – America's First Planetarium – was founded in 1930 by Chicago business leader Max Adler. Following its 75th anniversary, the Adler began a transformation into the world's premier space science center, inspiring the next generation of explorers by sharing the personal stories of human space exploration and America's space heroes. The Adler is a recognized leader in science education, with a focus on inspiring young people to pursue careers in science. Learn more at www.adlerplanetarium.org .


1. During Apollo liftoffs, VIPs were seated 3.5 miles from the pad. If the rocket exploded, it would do so with 4/5ths the power of an atomic bomb, scattering 100-pound pieces of shrapnel up to 3 miles.

2 The major propellants used on the mission were liquid oxygen and hydrogen; their tanks froze the humid Florida air onto the rocket's skin, causing flurries of snow and chunks of ice to rain down on the pad.

3 During countdown, Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins sat in absolute silence for thirty minutes.

4 Those who believed American astronauts were daredevil cowboys would be surprised by what Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made sure to bring with them on this mission: Slide rules.

5 Drinking water for the mission was generated by a fuel cell, but a malfunction made every drink bubbly. Some suggested the bravest man on this mission was the Navy frogman who opened the hatch after splashdown.

6 William Safire prepared a speech for President Nixon to deliver in the event of a tragedy. It began: "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace, will stay on the moon to rest in peace."

7 The "one small step for a man" wasn't so small; Armstrong had set the ship down so gently that the legs' shock absorbers hadn't deployed, and the bottom of the ladder was 3.5 feet away from the Moon's surface.

8 Armstrong's first assignment was to immediately grab a rock just in case there was an emergency abort; instead, he became so engrossed in taking pictures that Mission Control had to nag him three times about the sample.

9 The computers aboard each of the Apollo 11 spaceships had less power than today's cell phones.

10 The Lunar Module had no handle on the outside door; Aldrin had to take care that it did not lock shut behind him.

11 Armstrong later confessed that their most difficult task was planting the American flag. Even after pounding away, Armstrong and Aldrin could only get the pole a few inches into the hardened surface of the Sea of Tranquility, and feared that, before a global TV audience of untold millions, the flag would topple over into the dust.

12 There is today only one good photograph of Neil Armstrong on the moon—one he took himself, reflected in Aldrin's gold visor.

13 Both Armstrong and Aldrin had trouble sleeping that night on the moon; their system pumps made a racket, and Armstrong's hammock offered a perfect view of Earth, making it seem like a huge, unblinking blue eye was staring at him.

14 Lyndon Johnson's budget director argued, in great detail, for the vast savings to be had by extending the mission past 1970, but Johnson insisted he owed it to John Kennedy to make that deadline.

15 After President Kennedy was assassinated, his widow Jacqueline said about the various memorial plans that, "I've got everything I want; I have that flame in Arlington National Cemetery and I have the Cape. I don't care what people say. I want that flame, and I wanted his name on just that one booster, the one that would put us ahead of the Russians...that's all I wanted."

Copyright © 2022 WLS-TV. All Rights Reserved.