THE MOON BASE IN OHIO
Inside is a piece of the moon
and a dream come true at the
Armstrong Air & Space Museum
By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler
An imposing and peculiar looking dome is embedded in a western Ohio hillside. Passersby let their imaginations fly as they rocket along the freeway. Is it a secret military base or a nuclear weapon silo?
The answer is that it’s an interactive museum built in the mold of a futuristic moon base. The inside depicts perhaps the greatest dream come true – how a man came to walk on the moon!
The dome represents the moon and covers the Astro Theater inside of the Armstrong Air & Space Museum. Most of the museum appears to be underground since the earth was mounded around it. On the actual lunar surface, moon rocks would be used to form concrete for the walls of the dome, and then dirt would be mounded around it to help protect inhabitants against the heat, cold, and radiation. Ohio’s moon base dome has 14-inch thick steel-reinforced concrete rated to withstand 150 MPH winds. The unique design of the museum resulted from a contest presented to architects, which Arthur Klipfel, a founding partner at Oaktree Development, won.
Plans to build the museum were announced by Ohio Governor James Rhodes in July 1969 while astronaut Neil Armstrong was on the Apollo 11 moon mission. On July 20, 1972, exactly three years to the day since Armstrong took this giant leap for mankind, the museum’s doors opened to the public. The museum, situated in Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta not only serves to honor Neil Armstrong, but to also honor all Ohioans who entered the quest to conquer man’s final frontier. Inside the museum are one-of-a-kind exhibits featuring pieces such as the airplane Armstrong learned to fly at a nearby airfield, Armstrong’s Gemini 8 spacecraft and spacesuit, and the backup spacesuit for the Apollo 11 mission (the one he wore is at the Smithsonian). There are more unique artifacts to get to, but only one is not of this world!
“My favorite exhibit of all is the moon rock,” said Armstrong Air & Space Museum former director and current board member John Zwez. “It is so amazing to look at it and think that it came from the moon and that Neil Armstrong carried it back with him.”
In the early years of the museum, NASA would only lend the moon rock for a short period of time. It first arrived just a day before the opening of the museum.
“There was a knock on my office door and in comes this gentleman so big that he blocked out all of the light around him that had been shining through the door,” said Zwez. “In his right hand and resting against his hip was a Colt-45 revolver. He had his hand on the gun as he walked into the office, then he asked, ‘Where do you want it, buddy!’ His left wrist was handcuffed to a case containing the moon rock.”
In a subsequent loaning of the moon rock, Zwez flew to retrieve it at The Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
“They gave it to me in what looked like a woman’s cosmetic container. It was padlocked and had foam padding inside,” said Zwez.
In an airport, security wanted to X-ray the case. He refused.
“They took me into a back room and asked what was in the case. I said it’s a moon rock. And they laughed and said, ‘Sure, and I’ll bet you’re Neil Armstrong, too.’”
The moon rock that is now displayed at the museum has been there for 20 or more years. It is on what is called a permanent loan, and that’s how the museum came to display an actual moon rock from Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 mission.
Nobody knows when Armstrong first dreamed of flying, let alone walking on the moon. A seed may had been planted when he was a preschooler and his dad took him to the National Air Show Races in Cleveland, Ohio. Maybe it was while he sailed balsa wood airplanes out of his second-floor bedroom window.
A bench in front of the museum features a boyhood Armstrong sitting and holding a model airplane with wonder in his eyes. A desire to fly could have also come in grade school when he enjoyed his first airplane ride in Warren, Ohio, or when he would ride his bicycle to watch the planes at the now-gone Port Koneta Airport near Wapakoneta. But by the time he was 15-years-old, Armstrong was learning to fly in the Aeronca Champion airplane at that airport. Before he could drive, he earned his student pilot’s license. He was just 16-years-old.
“We have the airplane he learned to fly in, which is pretty remarkable,” said Armstrong Air & Space Museum Executive Director Dante Centuori. “When people realize it is the actual plane that Neil Armstrong learned to fly in, they are surprised by it.”
Just 20 years later on March 16, 1966, Armstrong would pilot his first mission into space on Gemini 8. This spacecraft is also displayed at the museum. He was NASA’s first civilian astronaut to fly into space. Previously, he served in the Navy and the Korean War. He resigned his commission in 1960. On the Gemini 8 mission, he performed the first docking of two spacecraft while in orbit. Interest in this spacecraft reignited with the 2018 movie First Man, which covers the years leading up to the Apollo 11 mission. When people look at the Gemini 8 spacecraft, they realize how small it is, and how long Armstrong had to be in it. When some visitors touch the vessel they envision Armstrong using his re-entry control fuel in a desperate attempt to stabilize a dangerous roll caused by a stuck thruster.
Museum visitors may use a simulator to practice docking the Gemini 8 spacecraft for themselves. The museum appeals to the senses with a variety of interactive exhibits featuring motion and sound. Simulators like the lunar module allow visitors to practice landing. There’s also a Zero Gravity trainer.
The cockpit of the F5D Skylancer is on display. Few visitors make the connection that this cockpit is the actual cockpit from the airplane in front of the museum’s long walkway at the front entrance, which represents a runway. Armstrong flew the Skylancer as a test pilot to develop abort-launch procedures. It has since been restored to its condition back when Armstrong flew it in the early 1960s. At the museum’s entrance, a bronze statue of Neil Armstrong as a test pilot greets visitors.
The museum is cleverly designed to move people toward the things on display, large and small, in a way so that they cannot be missed, but none of the approaches are as dramatic as the one leading up to Armstrong’s alternate space suit for his walk on the moon. A long and dark hallway ascends to the light at the end of the tunnel. In a glass case and contrast to the dark, the spacesuit sits illuminated with “Armstrong” printed across the chest. The bulky off-white suit has a larger than life presence. It has the NASA logo, the American flag, and six round, colorful connecting points for different hoses, all of which give people pause as they realize the enormity of the feat to which they have come to pay tribute.
“It’s pretty amazing because of the engineering you can see and all of the attachments,” said Centuori.
Fittingly, around the corner from the moon suit is the moon rock. It’s heavily fortified behind a triangular glass case upon a vice-like pedestal. It is yet another rare sight that freezes people in their tracks to gaze upon more closely. Wonderment seems ever-present in the minds behind the stares taking in the fact that what is before them is truly from out of this world.
So, with that in mind, visitors turn the corner to see the endlessness of space in what is the Infinity Room. There, a suspended walkway cuts through the starry night.
“The Infinity Room is a treat,” said Zwez. “It’s a novel display that well illustrates how space goes on forever.”
There are also crowd favorite portions of the museum that don’t standout upon approach, yet leave a lasting impression just the same. One of which that tends to intrigue school children is the display about how astronauts would go to the bathroom in space.
“It’s funny to hear some kids say they couldn’t be an astronaut after seeing how you had to go to the bathroom in space,” laughed Zwez.
One of Zwez’s favorite parts of the museum has always been inside the Astro Theater.
“Back in the day, we used 16mm film operated by a mirror system that moved all these images of the moon, planets, and stars,” said Zwez. “It played this really weird electronic customized music. I always enjoyed that. On a busy day, I’d like to stop there and see the star ball which showed the night sky. It was quite relaxing and enjoyable.”
When people land in the Astro Theater, they don’t usually realize that they are under the 56-foot dome at the center of the museum, representing a moon base outside. Every day, a 25-minute documentary about the Apollo 11 lunar landing plays here in a loop.
People used to wonder if Armstrong ever visited the museum himself, and the answer is yes.
During the height of Armstrong’s popularity, there were times when he’d stop by the museum to donate items until his passing on August 25, 2012 in Cincinnati, Ohio. On one such unannounced visit, Zwez asked Armstrong if he wanted to walk through the museum.
“We paused by the Gemini 8 spacecraft when I noticed an older gentleman with a cane,” said Zwez. “He was staring in a way that I knew he was trying to figure out if the man next to me was Neil Armstrong or not. He didn’t have the nerve to come out and ask, but he kept turning to his wife to whisper in her ear. Neil and I finished the walk-though and returned to my office. We were chatting, and the next thing I knew, I heard a cane tap the open door. There was this man, and he asked, ‘Are you Neil Armstrong?’ Neil said, ‘Why yes I am.’ Then Neil stood up and shook the gentleman’s hand. Before the gentleman was even out of the office, he yelled out to his wife, ‘I told you that was Neil Armstrong!’ It was just a hoot because my guess is in that relationship, that was one of the few times that old man was right about something.”
Although meeting Neil Armstrong at the Armstrong Air & Space Museum may have been a rare discovery for that man, there are Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) discoveries happening all the time in the museum’s new Neil Armstrong STEM Inspiration Center.
“This educational space enables the implementation of new technology and more capabilities,” said Centuori.
Students and tour groups now have an even more experiential visit at the museum, and enjoy a variety of additional hands-on activities. For the older grades, technology and engineering programs include advanced manufacturing and design on a computer.
“Right now we do programs with things like design challenges where the students are forced to think about how to solve a problem,” said Centuori. “Instead of being told to make a rocket do “X”, they are given the tools and fundamental understanding to work as engineers to solve a problem. For example, the students may be thrown a curveball which says your rocket now has to lift 16 ounces instead of 10. Stuff like that happens in real life. You design something and then the parameters change.”
Another advanced program utilizes a 3D printer. Time becomes a factor with 3D printing so a longer class or series of classes is necessary for these project groups. With 3D printing, there are more constraints, especially if a printed object is to have a function. For example, NASA has 3D printers on the space station so when they need a part for something they can 3D print it as opposed to having to have it sent up on a spaceship.
“We printed a scale model of the Mars Curiosity Rover,” said Centuori. “Also, we are able to explore how to use materials differently. We’re using the printer to help more like an interpretive tool.”
STEM field trips, resources and programming are offered at the museum. Its STEM Center has outreach capabilities such as distance learning through video conferencing. So in addition to field trips on-site, content is also available through video conferencing. This includes astronomy lessons, all of which is aligned with Ohio’s educational standards. The museum also hosts overnight stays for groups and may send its educators to schools, libraries, scout groups, and other places to offer workshops. These can feature anything from rocketry to programs about Living in Another World and Black Holes.
A popular after-school program is the Armstrong Explorers. It’s a STEM experience in the Neil Armstrong STEM Inspiration Center. Grades 1-3 can train to be an astronaut by packing for a trip to space, and designing a mission patch. Grades 4-6 may learn about robotics and solar sails. Kids may also be signed-up outside of school to attend a workshop that may span several weekends in a row.
“It may culminate with a capstone like the launching of a rocket at the end, or something like that,” said Centuori.
In the early days of the museum, Neil Armstrong’s mom, Viola, would sometimes help Zwez give tours to school children. After all, she was a local resident, active in the community.
“She would mention Neil at their age and that they should study hard, be a good person, and listen to their teachers,” said Zwez. “I would often wonder, having introduced her as Neil’s mom, if those kids ever truly comprehended that they were touring the museum with the first man on the moon’s mother.”
Throughout the year, special events are held at the museum. They may not be as special as meeting Mrs. Armstrong, but they are entertaining none-the-less.
Moon Evening is a stargazing event with telescopes under the guidance offered by members of the local astronomical society. It’s held between August 5th and August 25th, the dates of Armstrong’s birth and death. The event was inspired by one of the last things he said, “The next time you look at the moon, give it a wink and think of Neil.”
The Festival of Flight is an annual event held every September. It features kite and drone flying on the museum’s spacious and grassy grounds. Participants may learn some tricks from talking to hobbyists and professionals. Activities include making paper airplanes and kites to fly, compete, and keep.
Boo On The moon is a Halloween event. Visitors may come in costume and trick-or-treat throughout the museum. Inside there’s a haunted classroom and decorated theater. Fun-filled activities include mummy bowling and pumpkin roll races.
On the day after Thanksgiving, tens of thousands of lights illuminate the museum grounds each night throughout the Christmas season. Rope-light sculptures range from 7-20 feet high. They feature things such as a saluting astronaut, space shuttle, or Saturn V rocket.
Museum space is also available for private rentals such as wedding rehearsal dinners, birthdays, and anniversaries. Outside there is a large pavilion with picnic tables overlooking replicas of the Apollo and Gemini space capsules.
Although there are vending machines, too, everyone usually heads to the gift shop for space ice cream!
“Our biggest seller was probably astronaut freeze-dried ice cream,” said Zwez. “Although astronaut food was freeze-dried, you couldn’t eat ice cream up there without making a mess because it would just crumble all over. But people just loved getting that astronaut ice cream.”
The Apollo 11 mission patch is another popular purchase in the gift shop as well as a variety of tee shirts. Kids tend to like a lot of the smaller or more unique items such as a space helmet.
Over the years, Zwez has accumulated many stories that make the Armstrong Air & Space Museum such a personable experience.
“One time, a kid paid for his stuff in change. We never thought a thing of it, especially when you’re rushed by a hundred kids at the sales counter,” said Zwez. “But one of the sales clerks looked at some of the coins and noticed that they dated back to the 1800s. Here, the kid raided his dad’s rare coin collection before his field trip to pay for his souvenirs. We returned the coins, of course.”
Neil Armstrong’s story has been well told in books, documentaries, and in feature films. But to touch a spacecraft that he flew, see a piece of the actual moon, and experience realistic simulations is to open the door to something truly out of this world.
This museum is about experiencing what going to the moon was all about half a century ago and continuing the exploration of STEM to today and beyond. It highlights one of the greatest stories ever told of a dream come true – how a man came to walk on the moon!
The journey to explore Armstrong’s story extends throughout Wapakoneta, Armstrong’s old stomping grounds. His family home is at 601 W. Benton Street. And at 407 S. Blackhoof Street is where he attended Blume High School, which was at the same time he was learning to fly. To find more things to do in the area, visit SeeMore.org.
Remember that even for a reluctant hero, together, people can achieve extraordinary things. Plan your visit to the Armstrong Air & Space Museum at ArmstrongMuseum.org.
And reach for the moon!
By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler – Your Tour Guide to Fun!
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