The “one small step for man” announced by American astronaut Neil Armstrong when he put his foot’s imprint on the moon is the launching pad for a New Jersey State Museum exhibit that commemorates the 50th anniversary of one of the most momentous moments of human exploration: the Apollo 11 moon landing.
The one-chamber exhibit “Many Inspired Steps” uses mainly wall texts — a type of magazine on walls — and several objects involved with the voyage or designed to commemorate it. That includes an actual astronaut spacesuit worn by moonwalker David Scott and some small samples of moon rock.
The moon landing event itself is there thanks to a continuous playing of the landing’s video and the audio of the President Richard Nixon’s congratulatory call to space — recreating what the citizens of earth saw and heard that July 21, 1969, night.
Yet the “steps” involve more than the Apollo 11 voyage and retrace the birth of the space age and the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
And the New Jersey State Museum — itself a modern and sleek monument to 1960s design — is a fitting space to express the era’s optimism.
It was one best expressed by President John F. Kennedy, who in 1962 set America’s sights to the heavens and said, “We choose to go to the moon. 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, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
And as history and the exhibition texts make clear, the Soviets dominated the early race.
Here is some of the chronology shared by the museum:
On October 4, 1957, the Soviets’ Sputnik I became the first artificial satellite to orbit planet Earth. The United States followed by sending its own satellite into space on January 31, 1958, after an earlier attempt exploded on the launch pad in December, 1957.
In 1959 a series of American and Soviet spacecraft tested the limits of space travel. The Soviets’ Luna 1 orbited the sun. The American Pioneer 4 came within 37,300 miles of the moon but had a camera failure. But the Soviet Luna 3 successfully captured images of the dark side of the moon.
And then there was the Soviet game-changer on April 12, 1961, when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space. Less than a month later astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American space traveler. And some months later, in February, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, followed in June by cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova becoming the first woman in space.
Over the next several years the world witnessed the two super powers introduce space-walking, spacecraft dockings, and the Soviets’ Luna 9 becoming the first spacecraft to land on the moon in 1966. The U.S. followed a few months later.
The world also saw tragedies and casualties. Astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee died in a fire during a training mission. And Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov became the first person to die in space when his craft crashed during its return to earth.
Then after the July, 1968, Apollo 8 mission that took a team of astronauts on a 10-orbit trip around the moon, the United States was ready for the historic 1969 moon landing.
It is here that the exhibition turns itself over to the video that mesmerized the world, Armstrong’s descent from the module to the moon’s surface and his “One Small Step” statement.
Its power was reflected in Nixon’s simple statement: “For every American this has to be the proudest day of our lives. And for people all over the world, I am sure they too join with Americans in recognizing what an immense feat this is. Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world. And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one: one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.”
The core of the exhibition — 47 panels — was created by Dr. Thomas A. Lesser, former senior lecturer at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium in New York City, in partnership with Audio Visual Imagineering. That’s an Orlando, Florida-based company specializing in creating laser light shows for planetariums around the world.
The exhibit was made available for free to nonprofits that would print the panels locally.
The New Jersey State Museum version of the exhibition is augmented by New Jersey connections. One is that New Jersey native Buzz Aldrin was one of the Apollo 11 astronauts and, as the second human to walk on the moon, was the subject of a famous photograph taken by the first, Armstrong.
That image is in the exhibit but also reappears in an object: the Trenton-based Lenox China’s commemorative plate uses the image.
Other commemorative Trenton objects include a decorative porcelain moon created by the Cybis Porcelain Company. And there are the miniature New Jersey state flags that were bundled with other state flags, sent to the moon, and handed out to state governors.
And while not connected with the moon landing, there is the space-race Trenton object that blends the romantic idea of a honeymoon with space science, General Porcelain Manufacturing Company’s 1964 model for New Jersey astronaut Walter M. Schirra Jr.’s left hand. It was designed to accommodate his refusal to remove his wedding ring while participating in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.
Many Inspired Steps, New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. Through November 10. Tuesdays through Sundays, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Free, donations requested. 609-292-5420 or www.statemuseumnj.gov.