In 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued the challenge of a lifetime when he committed to sending a man to the moon before the end of the decade. Throughout the South, scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and more rose to the occasion, from the rocket builders in Huntsville, Alabama, to mission control in Houston, to the launchpad on the coast of Florida, to the researchers at Langley in Virginia. Thanks to those teams, Kennedy’s dream became reality on July 20, 1969, when the astronauts aboard the Apollo 11 spacecraft landed on the moon after lifting off four days earlier. Fifty years later, out-of-this-world celebrations of the landmark anniversary have been planned across the country—here are the best ways to commemorate that lunar achievement, Southern style.
Travel Back in Time in Houston
NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, hosted the Apollo Mission Control Center, where crews were said to have turned blue waiting for the now-legendary words, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Now, for the first time ever, the general public can leap back in time and experience the newly restored Apollo Mission Control Center just as it looked the night it made history, down to the coffee cups discarded on the consoles and ashtrays where they snuffed out celebratory cigars.
Visitors with golden VIP tickets to the Johnson Space Center’s Apollo 11 50th Live event on July 20 will get an exclusive tour of the new exhibit—along with access to a 1960s-inspired beer garden and a concert featuring Walk the Moon and Phillip Phillips—but if you aren’t able to snag one before they sell out, all is not lost. The restored Mission Control Center is now a permanent part of the year-round NASA tram tours. And if your ideal night doesn’t involve the crowds at the Johnson Space Center, don your best Mad Men-era attire for this swinging sixties party at Hilton Houston NASA Clear Lake, complete with cigars, whiskey, and fireworks.
photo: Courtesy of NASA
Break a World Record in Huntsville, Alabama
Our space success wouldn’t have been possible without the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama: the birthplace of the Saturn V rocket, which propelled the Apollo 11 team into space. The development of the rocket was a victory of epic proportions. Clocking in at 6.2 million pounds and standing taller than the Statue of Liberty, the spacecraft didn’t look like it could be lifted with an industrial-sized crane, let alone take humans to the moon. If you’ll be in Huntsville for the lunar celebration, you can have a front row seat to another historic event. On July 16, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center will set out to smash a Guinness World Record by launching 5,000 miniature rockets at the exact moment in time that the Apollo 11 lifted off. The Rocket Center also invites those not in town to set off your own rocket, wherever you are, that same day as part of a Global Rocket Launch.
Dine Like an Astronaut in
The state dinner that welcomed the Apollo 11 astronauts home, presided over by President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon, has been heralded as one of the most lavish ever held outside of Washington, D.C. The dinner drew a star-studded crowd of 1,440 people to the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, California, where space pioneers and Hollywood celebrities alike dined on supreme of salmon Commodore and filet of beef Périgourdine. On July 20, space-obsessed foodies can experience a Southern spin on that 1969 menu at Wild Common in Charleston, South Carolina. There, chef Orlando Pagán will create a four-course dinner that includes trout mi-cuit, dry-aged prime rib eye, and a take on clair de lune—the same dessert served at the West Coast soiree.
Revisit Old Florida in Cape Canaveral
On the morning of July 16, 1969, spectators from all over the country camped out on Florida beaches and lined the highways to watch the Apollo 11 launch at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida—an event that would either be the stage of a world-changing triumph or a traumatic failure. “If the Saturn V blew up on or near the launch pad, it would have the force of a small nuclear weapon,” Michael Neufeld, a senior curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, told History.com. Instead, the successful launch of Apollo 11 transformed Brevard County into “Florida’s Space Coast.” Opening July 22, the city of Cape Canaveral will give visitors the chance to wax nostalgic at their Summer of Space history exhibit, a collection of 1960s photos and memorabilia submitted by Cape Canaveral residents. In addition to snaps of the space launch, you can relive the days of sand-caked Volkswagen Beetles and retro swimwear, as well as the landscape and lifestyle of Old Florida.
photo: Courtesy of State of Florida Archives (2); NASA
Fly with an Astronaut at Kennedy Space Center
Perhaps there’s no better way to salute the moon landing’s anniversary than in true astronaut fashion: from the sky. On July 20, board a Boeing 727 with the Zero Gravity Corporation to experience true weightlessness. Don’t stress if you’re new to zero gravity—retired astronaut Scott Kelly will be along for the ride. Fliers will experience about eight minutes of weightlessness and get a sense of what it was like to walk on the surface of the moon during the lunar gravity segment of the flight. Just be sure to eat a small breakfast.
Sleep Under the Stars at the Watergate Hotel
From July 16 to July 24, the historic (and notorious) Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., will host guests on its rooftop thanks to a special Apollo 11 package, which includes a bed in a “glamping globe,” moonlit yoga, a U.S. Treasury commemorative moon landing coin, and Tang cocktails for toasting. Legend has it that NASA created Tang specifically for their space missions, but the sugary orange powder has actually been around since 1957, according to Foodandwine.com. Sending Tang to space did wonders for the brand’s popularity—once NASA started using it to make the water aboard spacecrafts taste better, Tang became the “it” thing. You can stir up your own Tang cocktail at home with this recipe for a Rocket Booster.
Relive the Lunar Launch at the Washington Monument
Soak up the historic occasion in the shadows of our country’s other monumental accomplishments: On July 19 and 20, the National Mall will host the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Apollo 50: Go for the Moon show, which will project the Apollo 11 launch—including a forty-foot-wide-replica of the Kennedy Space Center countdown clock—onto the Washington Monument and adjacent screens. While you wait for the nighttime show to kick off, stop in at some of the other lunar-themed attractions nearby. The National Gallery of Art will display around fifty photographs of the moon, including some taken by Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, in the By the Light of the Silvery Moon exhibit starting July 14, and Armstrong’s newly restored spacesuit will be displayed at the National Air and Space Museum for the first time in thirteen years.
photo: 59 Productions, courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Close-Up of a Would-Be King
The art of being Elvis
Arts & Culture
The Dog That Stole Rick Bragg’s Heart
She was two dogs high, half a dog wide, and the only animal to ever run away with an Alabama author’s heart
Arts & Culture
And Niriko Makes Four
Ahead of Father’s Day, the writer Lolis Eric Elie reflects on the other Lolises in his life—his late father, and his new son
Food & Drink
Forgotten Southern Recipes
From pear salad and tomato pudding to vinegar pie and bacon crackers, we’re more than ready for these old-school classics to make a comeback
Arts & Culture
Party Like a Vanderbilt
A new exhibition at the Biltmore in Asheville shows Southern hospitality at its finest
Food & Drink