Marking a milestone: Where to celebrate this summer's 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing

Adriana Torres takes a photo of her son Nicolas Montes, 9, at a mock space display at Space Center in Houston, Texas, Friday, Jan. 30, 2015.

It was a monumental achievement that enthralled people around the world: On July 20, 1969, astronauts walked on the moon.

Fifty years later, that spellbinding milestone is being honored with events across the country. Central to the celebrations are places tied to the mission: Florida’s “Space Coast,” where the historic Apollo 11 expedition was launched; Huntsville, Ala., where the Saturn V rocket that powered the spaceflight was built; and Houston, headquarters for mission control.

“Many Americans today take man’s landing on the moon for granted,” said Pauline Frommer, editorial director for Frommer’s guidebooks. “In reality, it was a signature achievement for the United States — a massive, complex, dangerous undertaking.”

But there’s no need to leave planet Earth to enjoy the anniversary. Here are some places offering space-themed attractions and Apollo 11 fun.

Among the first words uttered from the moon was the name of this Texas city. “Houston, Tranquility Base here,” said astronaut Neil Armstrong. “The Eagle has landed.” No wonder Houston is going all-out to honor the anniversary with programs, parties and packages, including a blow-out July 20 event at Space Center Houston.

Ongoing attractions at the Space Center include exhibits of spacecraft and spacesuits; tours and films; and interactive experiences like “Planet Pioneers,” where visitors learn to survive in an alien environment by finding water and oxygen, growing food, building shelter, driving a 4-D vehicle, flying a virtual drone and spinning in a capsule.

Want to see a liftoff in person? A series of rocket launches — including NASA and SpaceX projects — are planned for this year. Buy tickets to watch from the Kennedy Space Center, or stake out public viewing sites like U.S. Highway 1 in Titusville along the Indian River or the beaches in Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach. Note that cancellations because of weather or technical issues are common, and that launches take place elsewhere as well.

Huntsville’s NASA Marshall Space Flight Center developed the Saturn V launch vehicles for the Apollo moon missions, and it’s still home to research, design and operations support centers for space programs.

Huntsville’s nickname is Rocket City, and its U.S. Space & Rocket Center will host reenactments of the moon landing, along with a July 16 launch of 5,000 model rockets at 9:32 a.m. Eastern time (8:32 a.m. local time), exactly 50 years after the Apollo 11 launch. Other 50th anniversary events include a street dance party, classic car show featuring 1960s-era vehicles, a beer garden and concerts.

Year-round attractions include rocket-style rides, a new planetarium and the NASA Emeritus Docent program, where visitors meet retired and working engineers. There’s a horizontal display of a Saturn V rocket, 363 feet long and a National Historic Landmark, and a vertical display of a replica standing taller than the Statue of Liberty. A new exhibit called “Apollo: When We Went to the Moon” runs through December.

You can also see astronaut Alan Shepard’s boot prints on a sidewalk and leave a banana on the tombstone of a monkey who flew a test flight 300 miles up in 1959. (The monkey lived out her life, another 25 years, at the Rocket Center.) For stargazing, check out the Von Braun Astronomical Society at Monte Sano State Park.

How about visiting a galaxy far, far away? Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opened at Disneyland in California in late May and launches at Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios in Florida on Aug. 29. The themed lands take guests to Batuu, a new planet that “Star Wars” fans haven’t seen before. Visitors can build a droid or a lightsaber, engage in battle from the cockpit of a Millennium Falcon and have a drink at Oga’s Cantina. Another attraction, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, is slated to open later this year.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. Aldrin and fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong were the first men to walk on the lunar surface, a milestone being marked this summer by 50th anniversary celebrations across the country.

In Washington, D.C., a July 16-20 Apollo 11 anniversary celebration is planned for the National Mall. And the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum will display Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit for the first time in 13 years following a restoration funded by a Kickstarter campaign.

In California, the Richard Nixon Library and Museum hosts an interactive exhibit, “Apollo 11: One Giant Leap for Mankind,” through early January. Downey, Calif., birthplace of the Apollo capsules, plans events ranging from a Lunar Pub Crawl to an Apollo 11 Landing Day celebration where people are encouraged to don their best ‘60s attire.

Finally, the award for best name for an anniversary shindig might just have to go to Denver’s Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum: ApolloPalooza, July 13-20.


(Beth J. Harpaz is a freelance writer.)


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