From Langley to The Moon 

Charting the space race at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

click to enlarge A 36-foot-long model of the Saturn V rocket greets visitors in the exhibit "Apollo: When We Went to the Moon ''  at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture starting this Saturday, March 18.

Courtesy of VMHC

A 36-foot-long model of the Saturn V rocket greets visitors in the exhibit "Apollo: When We Went to the Moon '' at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture starting this Saturday, March 18.

For all of the huge rockets, expansive travel distances and giant leaps of mankind touched upon in "Apollo: When We Went to the Moon," the new 7,000-square-foot exhibition coming to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, one of its most impressive artifacts is only three inches long.

"It's a tiny metal capsule that was used in the wind tunnel testing for the Gemini capsule," says Andrew Talkov, the Senior Director of Curatorial Affairs at the museum. "It charted the effects of reentry. We have this amazing photograph in 1960 of a Langley engineer placing the model in the wind tunnel. Everything about our space program is big, big distances, huge rockets, big goals, and amazing feats. But look at this: Even the smallest items helped us reach the moon."

Organized by the U.S Space and Rocket Center and the Australian exhibitor Flying Fish, "Apollo: When We Went to the Moon" recounts the evolution of manned space flight -- the Cold War Sputnik scare, Neil Armstrong's famous lunar stroll, the global galactic summit of the International Space Station, and beyond. The exhibit has won awed reactions during stopovers at Denver, Colorado's Museum of Nature and Science, Discovery Place Science in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, and other institutions. Now the exhibit is coming home.

The Richmond stopover, which starts Saturday, March 18, will include a special supplemental display that talks about Virginia's singular role in the space race, a sidebar exhibit put together by VMHC staff. Virginia may be the mother of presidents, but it's also been the mother of astronauts. Eleven have been born in the commonwealth, and NASA-manned flight concepts were conjured and nurtured here.

“One of the most exciting parts of this new exhibition is that we have the opportunity to highlight the important Virginia history that is woven into the ever-evolving story of space exploration," said Jamie Bosket, President & CEO at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, in a statement.

"The human space program in the U.S. was born in Virginia, at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton," explains Talkov. "Much of the testing and organization of our first human in space projects were organized there. And many people who lived in Virginia have worked at Langley and participated in Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and now the new Artemis project, where we're now going back to the moon."

Retired astronaut Leland D. Melvin flew two missions on the Space Shuttle Atlantis as a mission specialist. The Lynchburg native and former University of Richmond football standout is serving as the ambassador for the exhibit, and will participate in several programs during the exhibit's run at the VMHC, including a April 15 museum talk about his book, "Chasing Space." The pioneering African-American astronaut, who's become a media star with appearances on "Top Chef" and the Netflix series, "Dogs," as well as serving as former host of the Lifetime reality show, "Child Genius," also has one of his flight suits on display in the exhibit.

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Life in space

The experience will help visitors understand the day-to-day lives of astronauts in space. When Melvin talks with people about his galactic stints, he says that there is still much fascination about the logistics of how he actually lived there. "What was a day in the life of a Space Shuttle astronaut? That's a common one. And how to use the bathroom in space. One misconception is that astronauts only drink Tang. But that comes from the older folks. The kids today don't know about Tang."

The largest visiting exhibition in the museum's history, "Apollo" will literally take over the VMHC, with three full galleries dedicated to the story of manned space flight (a fourth gallery focuses on international cooperation in space). The first thing visitors will encounter when entering the museum is a 36 foot long model of the Saturn rocket. "There's even a model of the space shuttle in the gift shop. It's everywhere you go," Talkov says.

There will also be immersive displays, including a "launch experience" where visitors can stand in the middle of a three-side theatre and experience the Apollo 11 moon journey through archival footage and sound. "A lot of this will be interactive," says Melvin. "You can make your footprints on the moon, and the big kids can sit in the lunar lander."

Among the more than 160 artifacts on display will be original plaster casts made of the pioneer Apollo 11 astronauts' hands, used to make pressure gloves. There's also a fragment of one of the engines from the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, and an actual shard of the moon that visitors can touch.

"The first thing visitors will see in the exhibit is the nose cone of a Jupiter missile. These were being placed by the U.S. in western Europe as part of the weapons buildup, part of the Cold War," says Talkov. "The Russians launched Sputnik in 1957 and Americans freaked out. They now had satellites above us, and so the weaponization of space was here. It was a blow to the ego of the U.S. that the Soviets had beaten us to that achievement."

The exhibit acknowledges these Soviet accomplishments. The then-U.S.S.R. launched the first man and woman into space, orbited the earth for the first time and conducted the first space walk.

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"The exhibit speaks to our efforts to try to catch up to them, and beat them," the director says. "One of the main features talks about President John F. Kennedy, who was really the one who committed us to go to the moon before the 1960s were over. When he made those statements in 1961 in an address to Congress, the longest an American had been in space was fifteen minutes. So there was this amazing decade of innovation and problem solving to make a moon landing possible. This exhibit chronicles those developments."

There's another important lesson contained in "Apollo: When We Went to the Moon," he adds. "It's an excellent example of how working together can solve any problem, no matter how impossible."

Nostalgia for big shiny things and cool rocket launches notwithstanding, why does space exploration matter in 2023? Leland Melvin says that we explore to survive.

"Before I got into the astronaut corps, I talked with John Young, who walked on the moon for Apollo 16 and was on the first Space Shuttle. He told me, 'Once we stop exploring as a civilization, we're done.' And he's right. Things will evolve and we won't. So any time someone flies in space, whether it's Elon Musk with his Tesla Roadster or the Artemis mission, it's a good thing."

"Apollo: When We Went to the Moon '' runs at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture from Saturday, March 18 through Dec. 31, 2023. $10 or museum members free. For advanced tickets and information on side-events, lectures and programs, go to virginiahistory.org.



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