Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin have become so synonymous with the lunar landing and its Apollo mission that the day they landed on the surface of the moon appears, 50 years later, to be their own singular feat. But Making Astronauts: From Bucks County to the Moon, a special exhibition at Doylestown’s Mercer Museum, drives home the reality that the Apollo 11 mission and American space exploration are not the work of only an elite few.
The 1969 landing is best remembered with the iconic and often-parodied statement Armstrong gave as he set foot on the lunar landscape: One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. But what about, for example, command-module pilot Michael Collins, the oft-forgotten third member of the mission? The Mercer Museum, in collaboration with Warminster’s Johnsville Centrifuge and Science Museum, remembers the event as the result of more than a decade of trial, error, epic failure, and national goodwill.
From Here to There
The Mercer is currently hosting two special exhibitions related to the anniversary. From Here to There is a family-friendly, interactive display of the physics principles that led to the creation and launch of the space program. It features demonstrations of pneumatic tubes, magnets, and hovercraft. The exhibit takes about 10 minutes to get through, with plenty of space to maneuver walkers, wheelchairs, and strollers. The experience was developed by the Rochester Museum and Science Center of Rochester, New York and the Sciencenter of Ithaca, New York.
To Bucks County and beyond
The second exhibition, Making Astronauts: From Bucks County to the Moon, celebrates the unsung heroes who made space exploration possible. Most of the models and memorabilia on display come from the Naval Air Warfare Center Warminster, home of the Johnsville Centrifuge, which prepared astronauts for the intense G-forces of travel into space. Almost all the astronauts who participated in the Mercury and Apollo missions passed through Bucks County on their way to space.
History is not always an equitable thing, and much of the display is devoted to the women of NASA. They completed centrifuge training on par with their male counterparts, but would be denied further astronaut training for another 20 years—even as they continued to volunteer to ride the high G-forces, providing valuable data that furthered NASA’s research. Notably, while the exhibit acknowledges systemic barriers on the basis of gender, there is virtually no examination of the racial inequality that similarly prevented the advancement of astronauts of color.
At our best
It’s impossible to leave the exhibit thinking of the lunar landing as a singular, intangible historical event. Our current reality mirrors so much of the 1960s—systemic racist injustice, civil unrest, profound distrust in authority—but as a species, humans alone have touched the heavens and returned to tell about it. The plaque left behind by the Apollo 11 crew sums up the mission: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
The sum of humanity is greater than its parts. In a time when a lot of tweets and news clips show the worst of us, we need to remember what we’re capable of at our best.
What, When, Where
Making Astronauts: From Bucks County to the Moon and From Here to There. Through September 8, 2019, at the Mercer Museum, 84 South Pine Street, Doylestown, PA. (215) 345-0210 or mercermuseum.org.
The Mercer Museum wing housing these exhibits is an ADA-compliant venue.