Relive the day you first heard that a man walked on the moon by commemorating that milestone — 50 years ago — with a visit to Cape Canaveral.
I’ll never forget being on a study abroad program in a small town in Switzerland. On my way to class, a stranger came up and hugged me, congratulating me on being American. A man had touched down on the moon!
The First Man
It was July 20, 1969 when Apollo 11 Commander, astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, descended the steps of a lunar probe, set his boot upon the moon’s surface and announced, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The Apollo 11 crew: 38-year-old civilian commander Armstrong, 39-year-old M.I.T. PhD and Air Force Col. “Buzz” Aldrin and 38-year-old command module pilot, Lt. Col. Michael Collins, all agreed that their success was a universal milestone, not just America’s, and the world agreed.
NASA, at the forefront of this momentous celebration, is tracking the full schedule of programs. Cape Canaveral, as the place where it all began, will be a hotbed of stellar events. Read on for ways you can celebrate this July and learn about the science and people behind the first lunar landing.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away
As miraculous as that journey feels today, it was no easy feat back then.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” President John F. Kennedy declared on September 12, 1962.
While NASA, the civilian National Aeronautics and Space Administration, had been established in 1958, the Cold War with Russia motivated a new emphasis on space exploration, the Space Race.
Every space museum you’ll see has a section packed with yellowed newspapers and TV clips about the 1957 launch of Sputnik (1957) and the 1961 flight of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first person to fly in space (1961.) It was all fearful news that probably prompted your parents to build a bomb shelter and forced you to have ‘duck and cover’ drills at school.
A lot of it began at Kennedy Space Center
That story and the history of the Apollo missions is at the Apollo/ Saturn V Center at Kennedy Space Center, the launch site for NASA and U.S. Air Force missions in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The KSC Visitors Center is a fascinating introduction to outer space, where man has been and hopes to go. Multimedia displays make the history accessible to grandchildren, too, so you have plenty of time to read the labels and watch all the videos.
The KSC bus tour is a must because it’s the only way to see the huge VAB, Vehicle Assembly Building – so large that three Empire State Buildings can fit inside. Your guide will point out the launchpads, Mission Control building, working NASA facilities and commercial operators such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Boeing and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.
The bus tour ends at the enormous Apollo/ Saturn V Center hangar, where you can try to find a lens wide enough to photograph the suspended Saturn V moon rocket, one of three in the world.
Beginning July 15, 2019 in commemoration of the anniversary and the Year of Apollo, historic footage of the moon landing will be projected on the side of the rocket and all displays, landscaping and more will be refurbished. Even Lunar Module 9, dubbed “Eagle” by the crew, will be on view.
The Astrovan astronaut transport vehicle seen in the movie “First Man,” will also be there. Outside the Lunar Theater, enjoy the recreation 1969 living room and bar, places you may recall watching the moon landing IRL. Whatever my husband had forgotten about being a Houston stringer covering a launch for TIME came flooding back during the exciting “The Eagle has Landed” video that plays there.
Commemorating the Moon Walk at Cape Canaveral
These facilities are about 45 minutes east of Orlando in an area now known as The Space Coast. Upgrade your KSC visit to a bucket list trip by scheduling it during a rocket launch, which now occur almost monthly. Depending on the launch window, ticket packages may include seats, a meal, excellent commentary and streaming video from NASA, plus access to the KSC Visitors Center attractions.
Other premium scheduled experiences that are especially fun for kids and teens are Lunch with an Astronaut (yes, ask someone who’s been to space how they poop!) and the Astronaut Training Experience where you can try out various simulators and see if this is the career for you.
Plan ahead for the one-off special anniversary events, sure to sell out. They include a re-enactment of the Apollo 11 lift off through the launch sequence in real time on July 16; a big party July 20; and a welcome home celebration exactly 50 years later to the date that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins safely splashed back into the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969.
A Space Coast Weekend in Florida
In nearby Titusville, the American Space Museum and Space Walk of Fame is a mecca for those who have friends or family who were involved in the space program and can never get enough. This small museum, one of 34 in the U.S. we were told, features memorabilia provided by the unheralded workers of the space industry alongside an authentic Flight Control room.
Titusville resembles the small-town Florida of yesteryear. Forty astronauts’ handprints are commemorated in bronze at Space View Park nearby and Sand Point Park on the Indian River Lagoon is a favorite spot to view rocket launches if you don’t want to buy a ticket to KSC.
The other small towns of the Space Coast include the tourist-friendly Melbourne (home of the delightful Brevard Zoo), surfer-friendly Cocoa Beach (site of the original Ron Jon’s Surf Shop) and Port Canaveral (the cruise port.)
Value motels and small hotels abound. Both Country Inn & Suites by Radisson and Residence Inn Cape Canaveral are close to the action and have king bed or family accommodations with microwaves, coffeemakers, free hot breakfast, free WiFi and outdoor pools. A top value, the Country Inn & Suites rooms even have an alcove with twin beds themed to space flight, a treat for younger kids that means more privacy for adults.
Look for the few branches of the casual and very popular seafood place, Long Doggers. They call themselves ‘radically relaxed’ and I can vouch for that, while my husband says their craft Hatteras Red Lager brew is a must.
And the Real Moonwalk?
It was May 1983 when Michael Jackson immortalized the dance he named the Moonwalk on the Motown 25 TV special. No one knows whether or not Neil Armstrong’s moves on the lunar surface were the inspiration.
Cultural historians say the “new” dance that gave the illusion of moving backwards while walking forward, known as the Backslide, had been around for decades. To fact check, see this Youtube video of tap dancer Bill Bailey performing it at the Apollo Theater back in 1955.
And for 49 other ways to commemorate the Moon Walk, please see our roundup “50 Cosmic Ways to Commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Moon Walk.”