Photo by Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution
Command module Columbia

This is the object that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins flew to the moon inside of 50 years ago during the Apollo 11 mission, and it is the only spacecraft involved in that mission that returned to Earth. It is currently on view at the Museum of Flight through September 2, marking the first time it's been outside of Washington, DC, since the 1970s.

Approaching the moon

When the astronauts awoke the second day after launch, the moon filled the windows of the Columbia. It was three times the size it had been when they went to sleep. They were in the moon's shadow. The sun created a halo around it, and the surface was lit from earthshine.

Orbiting the moon

The Columbia did not actually touch down on the moon. The narrower top of it attached to a lunar module called the Eagle, which Armstrong and Aldrin crawled into and landed on the moon. After the Eagle launched the astronauts back into orbit around the moon and reattached to the Columbia, the Eagle was discarded.

"A mini-cathedral"

Collins piloted the Columbia in orbit around the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin took their giant leaps. He called it a mini-cathedral because of its cruciform layout inside. Norman Mailer called Armstrong "a veritable high priest of the forces of society and scientific history concentrated in the mini-cathedral, a general of the church of the forces of technology..."

Eating and excreting

The left side of the lower equipment bay was where the astronauts stored and prepared food, and the right side was where they would urinate. Wastewater and urine were expelled through tiny holes in the ship, but ever-so-slightly. In space, even a jet of pee could send you off course.

courtesy of NASA

Checking for leaks

Before Armstrong and Aldrin went from the Columbia to the Eagle, their spacesuits (custom-made for each astronaut) had to work perfectly. If one astronaut's suit had a leak, he couldn't go—because he would die when the hatch was opened on the moon.

A previous catastrophe

Almost two years earlier, the inside of the Apollo 1 command module caught fire during a routine ground test, with three astronauts on board. They couldn't open the hatch soon enough to escape. All died and the interior was incinerated. The subsequent modules were better fireproofed and redesigned so the hatch could open quickly.

Photo by Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

The equipment inside

The control panel has about 650 assorted dials, buttons, and switches. The computer was two feet by one foot by six inches, weighed 70 pounds, and knew 38,916 words.

The dark side of the moon

Collins, who stayed by himself in the Columbia while Armstrong and Aldrin walked around on the lunar surface, said the backside of the moon was a lightless void "defined solely by the absence of stars."

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Reentering the atmosphere

The Columbia reentered Earth's atmosphere at 25,000 miles per hour, blunt side first. If the astronauts arrived at too shallow of an angle, they would skip hopelessly back into space; too steep, and they would burn up. During reentry, the heat shield absorbed 5,500-degree temperatures without cooking the three men a couple feet away.

Fiftieth anniversary of a leap

The Museum of Flightis throwing a 1960s-themed "lunar block party" July 19–21, featuring later museum hours (open until 11 p.m.), live music, outdoor movies, and more.