June 22, 2009
As the 40th anniversary of the moon landing nears on July 20, curators and conservators at the National Air and Space Museum are polishing up the Apollo 11 artifacts. This morning, a three-day project began to replace the gold-colored, aluminized plastic film on the Apollo 11 lunar module, located on the museum’s first floor.
Lunar landers were used on the descent to the lunar surface and served as a base while Apollo astronauts were on the moon. The landers were not meant to return to Earth. The museum’s 8,650-pound, nearly 23-foot tall lander, LM-2 (shorthand for Lunar Excursion Module), was a test-vehicle, but a previous test of LM-1 aboard Apollo 5 in 1968 went off without a hitch. LM-2 remained earthbound and came to the museum in 1971.
The materials that cover the module, including the aluminized film, would help to protect its inner structure from temperature extremes and micrometeoroids. When I stopped by, interns in the museum’s conservation department were on ladders shining the module’s metal parts as Paul Fjeld, the contractor for the project, and Amanda Young, a museum specialist, worked on removing the foil, which they then used as templates for cutting the new sheets. Bits of gold foil littered the floor below. It was like Christmas morning for Allan Needell, curator in the division of space history.
“I’ve never seen what’s underneath the foil, and I’ve been here 25 years,” said Needell, who pointed out where an antenna, then covered, caused the foil to bulge.
Some repairs have been done to the LM-2 over the years, but this project, said Needell, is the “biggest and by far, the most conscientious.”
“It’s the Smithsonian’s responsibility to preserve the authenticity of the original object as much as possible,” he added. Fjeld, a space artist with NASA’s art program who led a similar project on the LM-13 at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Long Island, and built all the historically-accurate models used in Tom Hanks’ HBO series “From the Earth to the Moon,” was brought in to do the job. The conservation team is using only the original kinds of tape, foil and techniques.
“It’s an exquisite piece of hardware of a sort we don’t see much,” said Needell. “People have seen the photograph of Neil Armstrong stepping off the ladder, but seeing the equipment creates some context.” The LM-2 will soon look much like the Apollo 11 Eagle (LM-5) that set down at Tranquility Base in 1969 and made history.
If you drop by the museum today or tomorrow, you can see the team in action. And mark your calendar—there are several events scheduled to mark celebrate the moon landing.
The LM-2 will also be the subject of the “Object at Hand” column in Smithsonian magazine’s September issue.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.