50 Years After Apollo 11: Mission Tours, Moon Gazing and Conquering Gravity

The Apollo 11 Saturn V lifts off with Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin Jr. on July 16, 1969.
The Apollo 11 Saturn V lifts off with Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin Jr. on July 16, 1969. Photo by NASA
Ten, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Liftoff! As Houston counts down to the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing (July 20), we're ramping up with all sorts of space-themed activities, including art, film, music and virtual reality experiences.

Have you ever wondered what it must feel like to travel to the moon? Immerse yourself in the astronaut experience on the Mission Control and Legacy Spacecraft Simulator, part of the Moon Mission Tours in the Expedition Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. This experience is limited to 20 people at a time, so arrive early and reserve your spot, then become a critical member of the astronaut crew.

Moon Mission Tours in the Expedition Center are available through August 16 at 1 p.m. daily at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, 5555 Hermann Park Drive. For information, call 713-639-4629 or visit $5 per participant (plus admission to the permanent exhibit halls).

The Houston Symphony has super-sized its Star-Spangled Salute by selecting musical pieces like “Moondance,” John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and Bill Conti’s music from the film The Right Stuff. Want more? NASA veteran Bill Davidson is the special guest for this commemoration of the 50th anniversary; before his retirement Davidson's titles during the Apollo 11 era included Special Assistant to Chief, Flight Control Division; Section Head, Advanced Operations Planning Section; Program Planning Supervisor; and Mission Manager for the Earth Operations Aircraft Program Office. Don't miss the free fireworks after the concert.

ExxonMobil Summer Symphony Nights: Star-Spangled Salute is scheduled for July 4 at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive. For information, call 713-224-7575 or visit or Free.

click to enlarge Take a VR field trip to the Space Exploration Vehicle during the Space City Experience at CITGO Freedom Over Texas. - PHOTO BY NASA
Take a VR field trip to the Space Exploration Vehicle during the Space City Experience at CITGO Freedom Over Texas.
Photo by NASA
This Thursday, while we're all celebrating the 4th of July, NASA's Johnson Space Center is partnering with CITGO Freedom Over Texas with a signature Space City Experience that includes an opportunity to be up close and personal with astronauts, robotic demonstrations, virtual reality field trips to the International Space Station, the Space Exploration Vehicle, NASA’s Destination Station, and other NASA assets and activities. The fun ends with a fabulous fireworks show.

CITGO Freedom Over Texas is scheduled for July 4 from 4-10 p.m. Thursday at Eleanor Tinsley Park, 500 Allen Parkway, and Sam Houston Park, 1000 Bagby. For information, visit $8 to $10 (free for children ages 5 and under).

Ride that astronaut wave by viewing Apollo 11: First Steps Edition on HMNS's Giant Screen Theatre, showcasing the real-life moments of the first lunar landing. The film includes never-before-seen footage and newly discovered audio recordings, immersing audience members in those exhilarating moments of preparation, countdown, liftoff, landing, and the eventual safe return from that historic mission.

Apollo 11: First Steps Edition screens daily through August 2, with additional screenings through August 16, at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, 5555 Hermann Park Drive. For information, call 713-639-4629 or visit $6 to $12.

click to enlarge Flight controllers during lunar module descent. Not anxious at all. - PHOTO BY NASA
Flight controllers during lunar module descent. Not anxious at all.
Photo by NASA
Space Center Houston has something phenomenal in the works for July 20 — more on that next week in part two of our series — but they've planned all sorts of celebrations beginning with the 50th anniversary of blastoff from Kennedy Space Center (July 16) and all the way through to the anniversary of the historic splashdown in the Pacific Ocean (July 24).

Amazingly they've actually turned back the clock and have restored the Apollo Mission Control Center to the way it looked in the 1960s, with illuminated flight control consoles and wall displays and an immersive audio-visual experience. The restoration of the National Historic Landmark to its Apollo-era configuration began in July 2017 and was coordinated by NASA Johnson Space Center with funds raised by the nonprofit Space Center Houston, the official visitor center of Johnson Space Center.

click to enlarge By the time you read this, the restoration of the Apollo Mission Control Center will be complete. - PHOTO BY NASA
By the time you read this, the restoration of the Apollo Mission Control Center will be complete.
Photo by NASA
Availability is limited for these tours of the restored Apollo Mission Control Center, so be sure to get your timed tickets when you arrive.

Additional offerings at Space Center Houston:

July 16 (free)

7 p.m., Magnificent Desolation screening and panel discussion about the three-part documentary, Chasing the Moon, with filmmaker Robert Stone and fellow panelist and former NASA historian Roger Launius. The documentary features 25-year-old math whiz Poppy Northcutt, the first woman to serve in Mission Control.

July 18 ($24.95 to $39.95)

6 p.m., Space on Screen: Armstrong, with dinner in the Astronaut Gallery among the astronaut flight and space suits. Armstrong tells the story of Neil Armstrong from his childhood in Ohio to his first steps on the moon, and incorporates home videos and unseen footage from NASA.

July 16-24 (included with general admission ticket to Space Center Houston)
  • NASA tram tours featuring Apollo Mission Control Center at NASA Johnson Space Center
  • Mission briefings on the Apollo 11 mission
  • Apollo 11-themed pop-up science labs
  • Sponsor activity tent (July 18-21 only)
50th Anniversary events are scheduled for July 16 through July 24 at 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. July 16-18 and 22-23, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. July 19, 9 a.m. to midnight July 20, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. July 21, and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. July 24 at Space Center Houston, 1601 Nasa Parkway. For information, call 281-244-2100 or visit $24.95 to $29.95.

July 16, 18 and 24

You won't be served Space Food Sticks with Tang, but having Lunch with Apollo Flight Controllers is infinitely cooler. Imagine asking Milton Heflin about landing and recovery operations or Larry Schmitt about the science on the lunar surface. These experts, and many more, are standing by to share their experiences, memories and what they learned during the Apollo era. Come back another day for Lunch with the Children of Apollo for a panel discussion with Jeff and Barbara Lovell, Amy Bean and Tracy Cernan Woolie, with moderation by Gwen Griffin.

Lunch with Apollo flight controllers is scheduled for July 16 and July 24 at noon Tuesday and Wednesday at Space Center Houston, 1601 Nasa Parkway. Lunch with the Children of Apollo is scheduled for July 18 at noon Thursday. For information, call 281-244-2100 or visit $11 to $69.95.

click to enlarge Museum of the Moon by Luke Jerram is at a scale of 1:500,000. - PHOTO BY THE HOUSTON MUSEUM OF NATURAL SCIENCE
Museum of the Moon by Luke Jerram is at a scale of 1:500,000.
Photo by the Houston Museum of Natural Science
It's hard to miss this gigantic sculpture at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Measuring in at a whopping 23 feet in diameter, artist Luke Jerram replicated detailed imagery of the lunar surface that was taken by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Each inch represents 42 feet of the moon's terrain, showing the lunar crater Tycho, the Apollo landing sites, and the rarely seen far side of the moon. Dubbed Museum of the Moon, the illuminated sculpture is paired with a composition by Dan Jones presented in surround sound.

Museum of the Moon is on display through the beginning of January 2020 at 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays through Wednesdays, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays (summer hours) at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, 5555 Hermann Park Drive. For information, call 713-639-4629 or visit Free to $25 (included with regular admission to permanent exhibit halls).

Every telescope at the George Observatory will be pointed at the moon for this month's Moon-gazing Special Event, letting viewers explore the landing site, lunar plains, mountain ranges, cliffs, craters and more. Stargazing is a weather dependent event, so they're only selling tickets in person; plus access to Brazos Bend State Park (where the observatory is located) is closed after 9:30 p.m. If the skies are overcast, still consider heading over for tours and talks by expert astronomers.

Moon-gazing is scheduled for July 12 from 7:30-10 p.m. Friday at George Observatory, 21901 FM 762, Needville. For information, call 281-242-3055 or visit $7 to $10. Entrance fee to the park is $7 for adults and free for children under 12.

If you like the idea of gazing up at the night sky, but don't feel like road-tripping it to Needville for the George Observatory, a very suitable Plan B is the Family Star Viewing event at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Head up to the seventh floor of the parking garage where you'll find astronomy experts and telescopes aimed at the night sky. Your ticket includes a picnic style dinner, live planetarium show and tours of the expedition center.

Family Star Viewing is scheduled for July 12 at 7 p.m. Friday at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, 5555 Hermann Park. For information, call 713-639-4629 or visit $20 to $30.

Well, this concert was a natural. Apollo Chamber Players are headed to Rocket Park at Space Center Houston for a pair of performances in front of the massive Saturn V, bookended by Q&As with real life astronauts. The Saturn V rocket is the tallest, heaviest and most powerful rocket ever flown, and is one of the most popular spots for taking a selfie.

Performances are scheduled for July 6 at 12:30 and 2 p.m. Saturday at NASA Rocket Park, 1601 Nasa Road 1. For information, call 832-496-9943 or visit Free.

It's a very elite club for those humans who have escaped the bonds of Earth's gravitational pull. Celebrate victory over a universe controlled by gravity in the planetarium show, Apollo & Beyond: Conquering Gravity, sharing the adventure of the 24 Apollo astronauts who reached lunar orbit. Explore other worlds in the solar system, imagine what it might be like to live there, and get a glimpse at how gravity shapes our cosmos and even determines our destiny.

Planetarium shows are scheduled daily through September 2 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Burke Baker Planetarium, 5555 Hermann Park Drive. For information, call 713-639-4629 or visit $4 to $9.

Family togetherness achieves new heights when it comes to Hillerbrand+Magsamen's "Higher Ground (Relics of a Mission)." Stephan Hillerbrand and Mary Magsamen enlisted the help of their children to dismantle their home and build a rocket ship in the back yard, then took a harrowing sim trip into space with their dogs Onyx and Penny. That endeavor led to an award-winning film, photography and branded merch (commemorative plates, shirts and mugs), and we can see it all during this limited time engagement, courtesy of FotoFest. Fall down your own rabbit hole with an artists' talk at 2 p.m. July 13 or a curatorial walkthrough at 6:30 p.m. July 18.

"Higher Ground (Relics of a Mission)" is scheduled for July 8 through July 19 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays at FotoFest at Winter Street Studios, 2101 Winter. For information, call 713-223-5522 or visit Free.

While you're checking out Hillerbrand+Magsamen's Higher Ground exhibit, supersize your trip with a journey through the more than 350 open art studios at Sawyer Yards. For this commemorative "Out of This World" event, they're projecting the solar system in the old train shed, showing clips of the moon landing on the Riviana Rice silos, and setting up photo opp stations with space-themed backdrops.

"Out of This World" is scheduled for July 13 from 6-10 p.m. Saturday at Silver Street Studios, 2000 Edwards; The Silos at Sawyer Yards, 1502 Sawyer; Winter Street Studios, 2101 Winter; and Summer Street Studios, 2204 Summer. "Out of This World" also is scheduled for July 13 from noon-7 p.m. at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring; and Sabine Street Studios, 1907 Sabine. For information, visit

Educators looking for a themed field trip should check out the Films On Demand option over at the Burke Baker Planetarium. These full-dome films are available for private showings, including Future Moon, a realistic voyage narrated by Walter Cronkite. See the violent collision that created the moon billions of years ago, witness Apollo astronauts as they explore the lunar surface, and imagine the future of space travel by hopping on board a translunar craft. Music and score are by Shai Fishman.

For information about this option at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, visit

Houston Public Media continues with its PBS Summer of Space. Watch American Experience: Chasing the Moon on July 8 and NOVA: Back to the Moon, both on TV 8.

Broadcasts are scheduled for July 8 at 8 p.m. Monday and July 10 at 7 p.m. Wednesday on TV8. For information, visit Free.

Check back next week for part two in our series with information about Sky Fest at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Apollo 11 50th Live at Space Center Houston, an Apollo 50 tribute to Led Zeppelin and Eclipse, and much, much more.
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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney