Moonwalkers' Apollo 11 Capsule Gets Needed Primping For Its Star Turn On Earth

Jun 26, 2017
Originally published on June 27, 2017 7:59 pm

The Apollo 11 command module, which took the first moonwalkers to lunar orbit and back in 1969, is undergoing a painstaking restoration, in preparation for an unusual national tour later this year.

Until recently, the capsule sat in the main lobby of the National Air and Space Museum, where it had been since the museum opened in 1976. Conservator Lisa Young says that occasionally workers would open up its Plexiglas case to look it over or put in new lighting.

"But it never really went under a full examination or investigative analysis as to all of the certain materials on there, how stable they are," says Young, who is working on the spacecraft now in a restoration hangar at the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., outside of Washington, D.C.

"Our big job as conservators right now is to figure out, if we are going to put it back on display permanently, what could be happening to it in 50 years," says Young, who wants to prevent future deterioration.

Inside the capsule, for example, the adhesives used to help stick things to the walls are becoming more crumbly and losing elasticity. "So it's starting to have things pop off," says Young. "We want to go back in and make sure that all the adhesives remain stable."

The mint green paint on those walls also needs some tender loving care — it's starting to flake.

Another job on the to-do list is salt removal. This capsule did splash down in the ocean, after all, and partially filled with saltwater. "Salts embed themselves in materials and then creep out later," says Young.

And then there's the dust. Young holds a vacuum near the spacecraft's charred heat shield and uses a small paintbrush to gently sweep off dust.

"You actually just want to loosen the dust so it becomes airborne and goes into the vacuum," she explains.

She expects to spend about a month just cleaning the surfaces. "I'll probably be doing a little bit more on the top where we do corrosion removal and fabric repair," says Young.

The point of all this cleaning and repair is preservation — not to make it look shiny and new.

"One of the things, you know, about space objects that you want to make sure," she says, "is that you leave all of its evidence from space." That means unique stuff — like the burn marks from its fiery re-entry, and the numbers scribbled by astronauts on the walls — will all stay.

After the work is done, the Apollo 11 capsule will be ready to visit museums in Houston, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Seattle. Then it returns to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, to be displayed in a brand new, environmentally controlled glass case as the centerpiece of a gallery called "Destination Moon."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Apollo 11 capsule took astronauts to the first moon landing and back. It is now a priceless museum artifact. Later this year, it'll go on tour around the country for the first time in over 40 years. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that before that happens, it has to undergo a painstaking restoration.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The Apollo 11 command module spent four decades on display in the main lobby of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. Occasionally, workers would open up its plexiglass case to look it over or put in new lighting.

LISA YOUNG: But it never really went under a full examination or investigative analysis as to all of the certain materials on there, how stable they are.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Lisa Young is a conservator at the museum who's trying to make sure this capsule doesn't deteriorate. She's working on it now in a restoration hangar outside of Washington, D.C.

YOUNG: And our big job as conservators right now is to figure out if we're going to put it back on display permanently, what could be happening to it in 50 years?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Inside the capsule, for example, the adhesives used to stick velcro to the walls are becoming more crumbly and losing elasticity.

YOUNG: So it's starting to have things pop off. So we want to go back in and make sure that all the adhesives remain stable.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Same with the mint-green paint on those walls. It's starting to flake. Another job on the to-do list, salt removal. The capsule did splash down in the ocean after all.

YOUNG: Salts embed themselves in materials and then creep out later.

(SOUNDBITE OF VACUUM)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And then there's the dust. Young holds a vacuum near the charred heat shield. She uses a small paintbrush to gently sweep off dust.

YOUNG: So you actually just want to loosen the dust so it becomes airborne and goes into the vacuum.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: How long will it take to clean this thing?

YOUNG: Probably like a month just for the surfaces, and then I'll be probably doing a little bit more on the top where we do corrosion removal and fabric repair.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Young says the point of all this cleaning and repair is preservation, not to make it look shiny and new.

YOUNG: One of the things, you know, about space objects that you want to make sure is that you leave all of its evidence from space.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So the burn marks from its fiery re-entry and numbers scribbled by astronauts on the walls - all that stays. After the work is done, the Apollo 11 capsule will visit museums in Houston, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Seattle. Then it returns to the Smithsonian to be displayed in a brand new, environmentally controlled glass case. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.