Fifty years after the fact, the National Mall hosts a spectacular, and deeply moving, celebration.

a tall thin building at night with the image of a rocket projected onto it
An image of the Saturn V that lofted Apollo 11 into space graces the east face of the Washington Monument on July 18, 2019.
Matthew Carreiro /

On July 19th, I headed down to the National Mall at dusk for a 17-minute show entitled “Apollo 50: Go for the Moon,” which the National Air and Space Museum had commissioned. I went with some trepidation. How could they possibly honor Apollo 11 in a way that would live up to the magnitude of the mission? As I’ve written (S&T: July 2016, p. 16), Apollo 11 was an event of evolutionary significance, akin to the moment some 60,000 years ago when humans first left Africa. 

I arrived as daylight was fading. The 363-foot (110-meter) Saturn V rocket was projected onto the 555-foot Washington Monument. Klieg lights pointed up at just the right angle to facilitate the remarkably good illusion, and full darkness fell just before the show began. Fueled up and ready to launch, the colossal virtual rocket vented steam, just like the real thing. It looked extremely cool. But what would happen now? Obviously, the monument wouldn’t launch into space. So how could what was to follow not be anticlimactic? 

A PA system blasted sounds from Mission Control 50 years ago, enhanced by a spacey soundtrack. A hush fell over the Mall as we heard that technicians had closed the protective cover over the hatch and the cabin air had been purged. Beneath the rocket, a 40-foot-wide recreation of the historic Kennedy Space Center countdown clock suddenly illuminated and began ticking down from 5 minutes. A series of enormous screens flanking the monument showed original footage of the scene around the launch — the crowds, Mission Control, and the astronauts themselves.

Then the famous inspirational words of John F. Kennedy, spoken at Rice University in 1962, rang out: “[W]e meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance.” The monument itself began displaying a sequence of images as the great orator recounted humanity’s long path from caves, through the printing press, the steam engine, and the Space Age, and told us why “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 . . .”

After the vast digital clock counted down to 1 minute, we were “live,” watching the steaming spacecraft with the sounds of the penultimate countdown. During the final 10 seconds we all screamed along. The mighty rocket engines fountained flame. No, the monument didn’t lift off, but it served as a towering screen where footage of the slow, fiery rise, the acceleration into the blue, and the dramatic first-stage separation all “aired” to brilliant effect. It was simply glorious. I felt wistful, humbled, and proud. Was there a dry eye on the grounds? It was too dark to see, and anyway I had to keep wiping my own tears away just to follow along.

In this divisive time, so rife with anxiety about the future, it was a special gift to be among that throng of thousands all cheering and gasping in unison, embracing a common goal. It was wonderful to be reminded, so viscerally, of a time when the future felt full of promise, and to remember that when we pull together we can solve seemingly insurmountable problems and achieve any future we want.

This article originally appeared in print in the November 2019 of Sky & Telescope.


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