A small Ohio city is shooting for the moon in celebrating its native son’s history-making walk 50 years ago this month.
The hometown of Neil Armstrong has expanded its usual weekend “summer moon festival” to 10 days of Apollo 11 commemorations . Tens of thousands of visitors — the biggest crowds here since Armstrong’s post-mission homecoming — are expected.
There will be hot air balloons, ’60s-themed evenings, concerts, rocket launches and a visit from five other Ohio astronauts. And “the world’s largest moon pie,” all 50 pounds of it.
Event planning began two years ago in a city of about 10,000 that has added nearly 3,000 residents since 1969 but retains that everybody-knows-everybody rural town feel. Jackie Martell of the chamber of commerce calls the moon landing anniversary an event that “just resonates for the entire world,” and a continuing source of local pride.
Dave Tangeman turned 12 on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 took Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon, and he and his family gathered around the black-and-white TV in their living room that evening to watch their neighbor. Hundreds of millions of people around the world were watching with them as Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface to make “one giant leap for mankind.”
“It was just so unbelievable that somebody from this little town could accomplish something like that,” said Tangeman, now transportation director for the local schools. He likes to joke that the town puts on a big birthday party for him every July.
Though Tangeman doesn’t remember much else about his 12th birthday, he has vivid memories of Armstrong’s triumphant welcome-home parade that Sept. 6, when most of the city of some 7,000 people joined tens of thousands of visitors to line the streets or climb onto roofs to see Armstrong, celebrities including entertainer Bob Hope, and the marching band from Armstrong’s Purdue University alma mater.
“History will always record that the first person to set foot on the moon was Neil Armstrong from Wapakoneta, Ohio,” said Dante Centuori, executive director of the Armstrong Air and Space Museum. “That’s not going to change.”
Armstrong was born Aug. 5, 1930, at his grandparents’ farm just outside Wapakoneta. His family moved around Ohio before settling back at Wapakoneta for his high school years. Growing up some 60 miles north of the Dayton home of the aviation-pioneering Wright Brothers, young Neil was fascinated with airplanes from an early age, building models and hanging them up in his bedroom.
As a teen in Wapakoneta, he used earnings from an after-school job at a drugstore to pay for flying lessons, pedaling his bicycle a few miles every day to an airfield to practice his skills. He made his first solo flight at age 16, 20 years before he went into space for the first time inside Gemini 8 for what became a harrowing mission that he survived to make history in 1969.
Celebrations got started last October with a red-carpet gala for a special showing of “First Man ,” starring Ryan Gosling and based on historian James R. Hansen’s Armstrong biography, in the historic downtown Wapa theatre .
Downtown shops are well-supplied with T-shirts, coffee mugs, moon artwork and moon landing memorabilia to sell in the coming days. But the museum — with its moon base-shaped top visible from Interstate 75 — will be the centerpiece for activities around the anniversary, including a NASA livestream broadcast on July 19.
Centuori, the museum director who joined the facility in January, has been overseeing construction and remodeling to get ready for the expected influx eager to see planes and space artifacts associated with Armstrong. Those include the Aeronca Champion plane Armstrong flew as a teen, an F5D Skylancer plane he flew as a Navy test pilot, the Gemini 8 capsule he rode into space, and a small moon rock. The museum also will debut an expanded Armstrong education center for students to focus on science, technology, engineering and math.
The museum, which opened in 1972, also will unveil two of three new statues in town honoring Armstrong. Although James Rhodes, Ohio’s governor at the time, began planning for the museum even before Armstrong was back on Earth, the astronaut himself preferred a low profile in his post-NASA years. He lived in the Cincinnati area until his death in 2012 at age 82.
In keeping with Armstrong’s nature, the museum advises entering visitors that “Mr. Armstrong has never been involved in the management of this museum nor benefited from it in any way.”
He did, though, embrace his Wapakoneta connection, telling his welcome-home crowd: “I’m proud to stand before you today and consider myself one of you.”
Helping represent those who came after him in space at the celebration will be five of the two dozen other astronauts with Ohio ties: Michael Good, Gregory Johnson, Robert Springer, Donald Thomas and Sunita Williams.