Parades. Moon pies. And five decades of nostalgia.
That’s how destinations like Houston and Florida’s Space Coast are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this week.
But the anniversary of the lunar landing — when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969 — represents a bigger opportunity. For the travel industry, it’s a moment to showcase a customer service reputation shaped by space tourism. And it’s a chance for deeper reflection on the next half-century of space flight.
Among the moon landing anniversary highlights:
- Johnson Space Center in Houston is hosting a series of events from July 16 — when Apollo 11 blasted off — through the mission’s conclusion, when the astronauts safely splashed down back on Earth on July 24. Among the events: an outdoor concert and festival, Apollo 11-themed pop-up science labs, mission briefings, and a special NASA tram tour featuring a just-opened historic mission control.
- Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Florida’s Atlantic coast is commemorating the Apollo program with a series of on-site community events and giveaways. It redesigned its signature Apollo/Saturn V Center and has a new lunar lander exhibit. On July 16, the day of Apollo 11’s launch, the complex is launching a record number of air rockets.
- The U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., has a new exhibit, “Apollo: When We Went to the Moon,” which chronicles the timeline from the beginning of the space race to the collaborative culture of the International Space Station program and beyond. It also has an ambitious series of events which include a parade and re-enactments.
Moon landing memories
John Tribe smiles when he thinks of the moon landing in 1969. A former chief engineer at Rockwell, he managed the Apollo Command and Service Module Propulsion Systems at Kennedy Space Center. He’s now a docent at the American Space Museum in nearby Titusville, Fla., which features exhibits and memorabilia from the space program.
“We were doing something that had never been done,” he says, recalling 12-hour workdays in the months preceding the historic launch of Apollo 11.
I asked Tribe about his moon landing memories. Back then, Titusville was like an old western town with dirt roads and citrus farms, he said. He says his team was so focused on their project that as soon as Armstrong and Aldrin cleared the launch pad, they started work on Apollo 12, the next mission. The engineers on the ground hardly took the time to stop even as the astronauts took their first steps on the lunar surface.
John-David Bartoe, a payload specialist on a 1985 Space Shuttle mission, is more nostalgic. In his office at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex, he reminisces about the night of the landing. He was in his apartment in Washington, D.C., and just before the Lunar Module touched down, he woke his two-year-old son and put him in front of the TV to watch the historic event.
“I felt like this was the beginning of something big,” says Bartoe, who worked as an astrophysicist at the Naval Research Center at the time.
In dozens of interviews with space insiders, that’s a recurring theme. Those who were working on the Apollo program say they didn’t have time to think about the significance of what they were doing because they were so busy doing it. The rest say they marveled at the moon landing, not just for what it was, but for what it meant.
Moon pies and other out-of-this-world fun
Even for people who are too young to remember the moon landing, the anniversary is an opportunity to show their creative side and to connect with their customers. Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen in Houston, for example, rolled out several new menu items to commemorate the event. It includes Dark Side of the Moon in a Sea of Tranquility (a matzoh ball and kreplach meat dumplings in chicken soup), a Tang Egg Cream (the orange soda is Fanta), and Black & White Moon Pies (chocolate and vanilla cookies with Mexican vanilla ice cream).
“We wanted to do something special for the moon landing,” says owner Ziggy Gruber, who was just one year old at the time of the lunar landing.
Across town, The Classic has also whipped up a Tang soft-serve beverage with grape soda and chia seeds as a tribute to the moon landing. The chia seeds look like the lunar surface.
Hotels are participating in the moon landing anniversary, too. At the Rosen Plaza Hotel in Orlando, there’s an “Over the Moon” overnight stay package special this month with rates starting at $119 a night. That includes a $50 food and beverage credit on the first night of the stay that can be used at Jack’s Place, its signature steak restaurant that features autographed caricatures of the Apollo astronauts. They’re drawn by Jack Rosen, a safety engineer at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York from the 1930s to the 60s. Harris Rosen, the hotel’s namesake and Jack’s son, met many of the astronauts when he helped manage the Hilton Cocoa Beach in the 60s. The Over the Moon package is the hotel’s salute to their dedication and bravery.
Local businesses are also capitalizing on the moon landing anniversary. Just south of Cape Canaveral, Adventure Kayak of Cocoa Beach runs a late-night tour of the nearby Thousand Islands. The almost two-hour tour is ideal for tourists watching night launches, but at this time of year also features the famous bioluminescence of the mangrove channels. It’s a favorite of the SpaceX interns, according to one tour guide.
Are we going back to the moon?
I lived in Central Florida when the Space Shuttle flew its last mission. Back then, there was a feeling that America’s spacefaring days might be over. A sense of despair hung over the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex like an early morning fog over the Banana River. The aging displays, with a faint scent of sweat and mildew, made it a sad place — even for an unapologetic fan of the space program.
What a difference a few years make. Today, there are several new exhibits, including the new U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. The Space Shuttle Atlantis sits in a gleaming new home, where displays help visitors explore shuttle missions that secured the future of the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station. There’s also a lot of buzz about the Orion program and planned missions to the moon and Mars — and, of course, the new presence of Blue Origin and SpaceX.
Put it all together and the 50th anniversary of the moon landing is about more than a retrospective of past achievements. It is a moment to consider future possibilities.
I was fortunate to meet with Tribe, the former propulsion specialist, and Charlie Mars, the chief of the Lunar Module Project Engineering Office for NASA’s manned launch operations, at the American Space Museum a day before the 50th-anniversary festivities started on the Space Coast. And I asked them if they had any thoughts about the present — and future — of the space program.
Both men shared their memories of Titusville and Cocoa Beach, an area heavily influenced by the space program, and that ultimately welcomed millions of tourists and cruise passengers at nearby Port Canaveral. They said the area has grown so much since the 1960s that it’s almost unrecognizable. Perhaps the biggest change is the cruise port, which welcomed 4.5 million passengers last year, an almost 8% increase from 2017. The same changes have happened in other space tourism cities, including Houston and Huntsville.
So what’s next?
But then the conversation drifted to our future in space. They, too, felt that the end of the Space Shuttle program could have been the end. But as you walk around the exhibits of the museum, you realize that there have been many near-death experiences for NASA. Those include two failed shuttle flights and the deadly Apollo 1 fire in 1967. The program always bounced back.
The space veterans argued about resources. Can we go to the moon and Mars? No, and there’s no real reason to return to the moon, they both agreed.
“Mars would probably be a good goal,” Charlie Mars told me. “But we need better propulsion systems to get there.”
Hopefully, it will not take another 50 years to get there.