Celebrating Apollo 11’s 50th Anniversary, Preserved Mission Control & My Chat With Neil Armstrong

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Apollo 11 crew Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. (NASA/Newsmakers)

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The moon shone brighter this week, all full of itself. Leading up to the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, four full moons reminded us just how far we’ve come and gone. Lunar cycles aside, I want to believe the full moons were a wink and nod from the heavens (even from the late Neil Armstrong), saying “back at ya.”

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin Jr. poses by the United States flag on the lunar surface. (Nasa/Getty Images)

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Gazing into space is looking back in time. Today, we reflect on July 20, 1969 when iconic astronauts Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins rocketed mankind to the moon’s surface for the first time.

Spectators the launch of NASA’s Apollo 11 space mission Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral), Florida on July 16, 1969. (Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

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Worldwide, half a billion mesmerized people watched Armstrong and Aldrin bounce around the moon’s pock-marked surface, collecting moon rocks and planting a U.S. flag, while Collins patiently orbited the Earth’s moon in “Columbia,” the command module. It was the largest television audience ever.

Joan Aldrin applauds her husband Buzz Aldrin and his crewmates at the end of Apollo 11’s mission. (Vernon Merritt III/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

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NASA’s newly restored Apollo Mission Control room at Johnson Space Center in Houston winds the clock back too—a newly preserved recreation of how it looked on July 20, 1969, when NASA’s crew guided the astronauts to the moon.

Mission Control Center during Apollo 11 mission. (Bettmann Archive)

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Mission Control Center was the command post for Apollo and Gemini missions, including the Apollo 11 lunar landing, ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, 21 Space Shuttle flights, Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz, the first joint U.S.-Soviet space flight. In 1985, it was officially named a landmark on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Shuttered in 1992, the control center withered to a rundown, nostalgic relic until recently renewed by generous grants, donations and a Kickstarter campaign.

The newly restored Apollo Mission Control Room is shown at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. (Kacey Cherry/AFP/Getty Images)

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A $5 million facelift later, it’s ready for a celebratory closeup as one of NASA’s chosen broadcast centers, along with Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Center and Washington, D.C.

A recreation of the Apollo 11 lunar mission inside the preserved control room. (Kacey Cherry/AFP/Getty Images)

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The restored control center returns to its 1960s space-age glory via original and reproduced décor—analog flight control consoles, tube TVs, flight logs, rotary phones, coffee cups, ash trays littered with cigarette butts, scientific binders, pencil sharpeners, and lots of illuminated push buttons. All that’s missing are short-sleeved, genius NASA engineers in nerdy reading glasses. The restoration also included updating oral histories and the lunar mission audio tapes.

Original flight control consoles at the newly restored Apollo Mission Control Room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. (Kacey Cherry/AFP/Getty Images)

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Aldrin and Collins reunite this weekend, first in the Oval Office with President Donald Trump, followed by a series official events telecast from the nation’s capital; Seattle where the Apollo 11 command module is displayed; and Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio.

Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stand in front of the Apollo 11 command module Columbia in 1999. (Joyce Naltchayan/ AFP/Getty Images)

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Armstrong, who died in 2012, is the space-sized void on this anniversary. But he’s central to the celebration. The world hasn’t forgotten him. Neither have I.

Michael Collins (left) and Buzz Aldrin (right) visit President Donald Trump in the Oval Office in celebration of Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary. Armstrong died in 2012. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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Along with Martin Luther King, Armstrong was an early hero of mine. I was born during the space age, a couple of years before the Apollo 11 mission. I have no memory of the live lunar landing, but my mother tells me I was present (in her lap), one of 500 million watching the momentous event.

Buzz Aldrin was originally scheduled to first walk the moon’s surface but module positioning made it harder, so Armstrong touched the moon first. (NASA/Getty Images)

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I caught the space bug later. Space was infused into my soul by osmosis in those formative years. Most kids wanted to be astronauts back then. Space ruled pop culture—astronaut Halloween costumes, Tang, Planet of the Apes lunch boxes, Voyager probes, UFO conspiracies, and of course, Star Wars. Space was everywhere. Still is.

Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins. (Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images)

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I loved observatories, telescopes, The Jetsons, Lost in Space, but inexplicably not Star Trek. I liked the science more than the fantasy. Obsessed with planets and stars, I wanted to become an astronaut or astronomer, before I even knew what these jobs entailed. Space is a vast, dark, fascinating place. Once in awhile, you come across something spectacular. That intrigued me.

Buzz Aldrin Apollo 11 lunar module pilot. (Neil Armstrong/Space Frontiers/Getty Images)

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Another rewind reminds me of something spectacular on a previous Apollo 11 anniversary. As a Special Projects editor at the University of Delaware’s newspaper (The Review), I planned special sections for two major events—the 1988 presidential election and the 20th anniversary of the NASA’s Apollo 11 moon landing in 1989. The election coverage was a cinch, the moon angle was trickier.

Michael Collins training for the Apollo 11 mission inside the command module. (Bettmann Archive)

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What could I say about Apollo 11 that hadn’t already been explored? How could the section stand out? I did what any naive college kid would do—call Neil Armstrong, the original moon walker.

Neil Armstrong during his first full dress rehearsal inside the lunar module. (Bettmann Archive)

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Somehow, I tracked down Armstrong’s phone number, presumably a business office managed by his assistant. I called, prepared to set up an appointment for my big interview. The phone rang and a male immediately picked up:

Him:“Hello?”

Me: “Hi, I’d like to speak to Neil Armstrong please.”

Him: “Speaking.”

Neil Armstrong speaks at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. during the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11. (NASA/Bill Ingalls via Getty Images)

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I paused in shock, realizing I was speaking to the real Neil Armstrong, the dude who’s humble even after walking on the moon. If it was Twitter, there’d be a check next to this phone call. This is actually the guy who made me want to fly to the moon or Mars. Never mind that I’d hadn’t even flown on an airplane yet. Dangerous rockets? Yeah, maybe I’d pull that off, because Armstrong did.

The Apollo 11 Saturn V space vehicle lifts off 16 July 1969 with astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin aboard. (NASA/AFP/Getty Images)

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Armstrong was very nice, even as he politely declined the interview. He rarely gave interviews, and certainly not to a random, overly ambitious, star-struck college kid. He was intensely private.

The very private Neil Armstrong (left) mostly retreated from public life in later years of his life. (SSPL/Getty Images)

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Next, I tried a Jedi mind trick. I did what my great journalism professor, Chuck Stone (a former Tuskegee Airman and Congressional Gold Medal winner) suggested for reluctant interviews—tell the subject it’s for educational purposes. Stuck out again. Armstrong stood by his principles.

Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin peer from window of their isolation quarters after their Apollo 11 mission and recovery. (Bettmann Archive)

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I could tell Armstrong felt slightly guilty saying no thanks to a desperate college kid. He briefly conversed—asked about me, my school and studies. We formed a five-minute bond (in space years, that means a bond only in my head). He said he’d talk to me in Washington, D.C. at the official 20th anniversary celebration in July. That was well beyond my deadline, budget, and college career since graduation was in May. This time, I had to respectfully turn him down. No interview, but at least I scored a memory.

Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon. (NASA/Newsmakers)

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Years later, I’d meet Buzz Aldrin at an event. He’s the charismatic one who enjoyed the spotlight, sucking up the Armstrong-Collins fame vacuum like a black hole. That’s okay. Someone had to take credit for changing the world. Why not him?

Buzz Aldrin, the Apollo 11 astronaut who relishes the spotlight. (Tim Boyle/Newsmakers)

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I didn’t bring up Armstrong because I read Aldrin was always bitter about being second to walk the moon (he was scheduled to be first but positioning inside the module altered the plan). His ego isn’t small. Why spoil his greatest achievement? After all, only 12 people have walked the moon.

A view of the Earth over the lunar horizon, from the Apollo 11 command module. (NASA/Newsmakers)

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Armstrong passed away August 25, 2012, during a half moon which might as well have been a flag at half staff. To this day, when someone says “speaking,” it reminds me of Neil Armstrong. Ironically, Armstrong rarely spoke on record. He isn’t available today but his sons are at the anniversary commemoration. If they don’t speak for him, I will—since we bonded and all.

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