Apollo 11 and the Dawn of a New Digital Age

This 50-year-old mission sparked our love-affair with technology

Buzz Aldrin and the American flag on the Moon
Apollo 11 Astronaut Buzz Aldrin plants an American flag on the surface of the Moon.

 Smithsonian Networks

The space age was arguably the start of our modern technology age. It marked the moment when we believed that science fiction could become our fact.

Some would say that the space age began with John Glenn’s 1962 earth orbit flight, but I’d argue it began in earnest when Astronaut Neil Armstrong planted his boot in the dusty surface of the moon on July 20th, 1969.

From that moment on — though we may have, for a time, turned our attention away from the stars — the possibility that technology could change humanity became a permanent part of our makeup.

Perhaps that’s why the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission resonates with so many people. It’s a kind of turning point from the analog past to a potential digital future (how many of us wondered back then how they were even transmitting images from the surface of the moon to our TV sets back home?).

In recent months, we’ve had the under-appreciated but excellent First Man, CNN’s astonishing “found footage” Apollo 11 documentary, and now the Smithsonian Channel, in cooperation with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, is airing a six-part docu-series, Apollo’s Moon Shot (June 16) and a one-hour special, The Day We Walked on The Moon (July 7).

To celebrate the Apollo 11 50th Anniversary, the shows, and a new companion augmented reality (AR) app, The Smithsonian Channel invited me (and hundreds of others) to a midtown New York City event space where we could experience the 1960s America that witnessed the Apollo 11 launch and landing.

The original Apollo 11 MIssion Control room.
The original Apollo 11 MIssion Control room.  Smithsonian Networks

As I entered the large room, I noticed a familiar panel of screens and analog controls. Almost a decade ago, I had the privilege of visiting The Kennedy Space Center in Florida and walk by the room where I could see, essentially frozen in time, the original Apollo Mission Control. This new tiny setup on the second floor of a Manhattan high-rise was a canny recreation, right down to the short-sleeved, white button-down-shirt-wearing techs who, with fake cigarettes clamped in their mouths, spoke calmly, but urgently over a very large microphone to Astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins on the Apollo 11 spacecraft.

I thought I might just stand and watch them recreate the moment when the lunar module touched down on the surface of the moon and Neil Armstrong proclaimed, “The Eagle has landed.” Instead, they turned away from the array of screens, lights, and switches and immediately asked for my name, acting (they were actors, so this made sense) as if I was one of the engineers. Soon, I was wearing a headset and repeating simple commands to the crew. Disappointingly, there was no actual Apollo 11 crew sounds coming through the headset or panel.

The author at a Mission Control recreation, wearing headphones and speaking into a microphone
The author has no idea what he’s doing at this Apollo 11 Mission Control recreation.

There were other activations and photo ops around the room, including one with an American Flag planted in gray, Styrofoam moon rocks. If you wanted, you could don cheesy astronaut helmets and step into the photo.

The wait staff were all dressed in a variety of 1960s costumes that ranged from homemaker to hippie. You could join in the fun by getting '60s-style eye makeup. I opted out. There were also bubbling moon drinks and ridiculously oversized TV dinners that tasted only slightly better than the originals (there was a lot of 2019 food, too, including sliders and sushi).

The author in a 1960s living room recreation and a virtual astronaut suit
Inside the 1960s living room recreation where I found fake cigarettes (left) and me as a terrible AR astronaut (right).

In one corner sat a carefully recreated 1960s living room. I navigated behind the coffee table and sat on the couch next to a middle-aged guy clearly dressed for the period. He introduced himself as Todd, an actor, playing a 1960s dad. He, too, had a fake cigarette and an ashtray full of spent butts. Adjacent to us was an old black and white TV that, with its 8-inch screen and deep chassis, looked more like it came from the early 1950s and not 1969. Images from the original landing broadcast played on a loop. In front us was a coffee table, which reminded me how my parents made a 5-year-old me do laps around our coffee table so I’d stay awake to see “the first man walk on the moon.”

As most of the attendees lined up for snacks, drinks and photo ops, I made my way over to a stand of 12.9-inch iPad Pros, all running the Smithsonian Channel’s Apollo’s Moon Shot AR app. The free app (available June 24) covers the Apollo 11 mission in detail, but also includes some eye-popping augmented reality experiences.

A Smithsonian channel exec gave me a brief overview, tapped a button, and handed me the tablet. I held it over the area's concrete floor as the AR system worked to detect a flat surface. With another tap, I virtually placed a realistic looking 3D recreation of the Saturn 5 rocket that launched Apollo 11 into space. I tapped again and then watched as the rocket ignited and then lifted off in the middle of the room (no one seemed to notice). The sounds, lifted from the actual mission launch, were impossible to hear above the hubbub of the crowded room.

The Smithsonian Channel’s Apollo 11 companion app on an iPad
The Smithsonian Channel’s impressive Apollo 11 companion app.

In another experience, the app opened an AR portal in the middle of the room to the Apollo 11 Lunar Module (“the Eagle”) on the Moon's Sea of Tranquility. As we walked forward with the tablet — trying not to bump into the real people in front of us — the opening grew larger until, eventually, we walked through it and were on the moon.

Later someone showed me how we could place an entire Apollo 11 spacesuit on the floor and walk around it. Finally, I used the app to virtually wear an Apollo 11 helmet. I looked suitably ridiculous.

The more I walked around, the more I realized the room was filled with space nerds and more than a few space heroes. There was Space Shuttle Astronaut (now retired) and author, Mike Massimino, who mentioned how he grew up idolizing the Apollo 11 astronauts. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Curator and Author Dr. Teasel Muir-Harmony, who wrote Apollo to the Moon: A History in Fifty Objects and serves as a documentary interview subject spoke briefly, noting how the museum’s collection of artifacts showexactly how these incredible people got from the Earth to the Moon, a challenge which seemed impossible, through the items they used to do it.”

Left, the author with Neil Armstrong's son, Mark. Right, the author with Retired Astronaut Mike Massimino.
Left, the author with Neil Armstrong's son, Mark. Right, the author with Retired Astronaut Mike Massimino.

In another corner I found Neil Armstrong’s two adult sons, Mark and Rick, surrounded by admirers hoping for a history-adjacent photo.

I approached Mark Armstrong, who bears a striking resemblance to his late father, and recounted how I witnessed the landing. He listened to what I imagine is the one millionth Apollo 11 personal history he’s heard in a lifetime and then graciously posed for a photo.

I walked out of the space both nostalgic and a little more excited about the future. The U.S. is heading back to the moon sometime in the next decade. What we learn and discover on the lunar surface and, maybe, Mars, could spark a new space age, one that inspires new products, ideas and, just maybe, when we think about technology, a new sense of hope and promise.