If you visit the Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta at dawn or dusk, you’ll feel like you’re creeping up on a futuristic moon base. The museum opened in 1972, three years to the day after Wapakoneta’s most famous native took mankind’s first steps on the moon. It celebrates his achievements and stands as a monument to Ohio’s contributions in aviation and space exploration.
Even as you approach the museum, you’ll see nods to Armstrong’s life and service. The F5D Skylancer, the jet he flew for an Air Force research program, sits parked in front of the museum. Carved bronze statues of Armstrong as a young boy and as an aviator sit outside, too.
Since it first opened, the museum has undergone remodeling and expansion. In 1999 the Modern Gallery was added to the south end of the building, and in 2017-18 the F5 Skylancer, which had sat exposed to the elements for decades, was restored and its cockpit brought inside in 2019 so guests could see it up close. The museum also has seen the addition of a STEM center, a redecoration of the moon rock room and new exhibits.
The museum is designed to take you chronologically through Armstrong’s life and career. It tells the story through artifacts, photos, videos and interactive displays, from Boy Scout paraphernalia to Navy uniforms to his Gemini and Apollo spacesuits. Be in awe at Armstrong’s Gemini VIII spacecraft, which he piloted with David Scott in 1966 for the first successful docking between two craft in orbit — and the first attempt of such a maneuver. Learn more about the harrowing mission, and how Armstrong recovered from an unexpected spin that could have ended in tragedy. Check out the life-sized Gemini and Apollo mockups to get a sense of the cramped quarters in which astronauts worked. Try your hand at landing the lunar module or bringing the space shuttle in for a touchdown.
And, of course, who can miss seeing a piece of the moon? It’s hard to fathom that the four-ounce piece of basalt once was part of the moon’s surface — brought back to Earth by Armstrong on the Apollo 11 mission. See footage of their mission at the Astro Theater, located under the white dome in the center of the museum. The film dives deep into the moon landing and space exploration.
New in 2022 for the 50th celebration of the museum is the Learjet 28 Longhorn number 001, flown by Armstrong in the late 1970s in which he set five world aviation records for altitude and time to climb. With the Learjet’s installation, the museum now showcases four craft flown by Armstrong throughout his career, starting with the Aeronca Champion he flew to get his pilot’s license, and his F5 Skylancer and Gemini VIII.
The anniversary celebrations extend all year long with a new 360-degree virtual tour, in-person and Facebook Live presentations, and an exhibition in the Modern Gallery exploring the history of the museum. See a remarkable object: a booklet signed by members of the Wapakoneta community while fundraising for the museum. Anyone who donated $1 or more could sign their name to the book, which was presented to Armstrong at the time of the museum’s opening in 1972. “The whole community got to write their name in this book,” says Logan Rex, the museum’s curator and communications director. “They gave this book to Mr. Armstrong in a wooden box. The wood came from the property where he was born. It’s a very hallowed artifact for the citizens. He in turn donated it back to the museum later.”
The Armstrong Air & Space Museum pays tribute to Ohio’s place in space history by honoring other astronauts from the Buckeye State and celebrating the history of space exploration inspired by Armstrong himself. Among those Ohio astronauts is Don Thomas, a Cleveland native who flew on four space shuttle missions between 1994 and 1997.
“I wanted to be an astronaut since I was six years old,” Thomas says. “When we launched Alan Shepard into space, I said ‘I want to do that.’ The next year was John Glenn. I spent the morning looking out the window of my classroom looking for John Glenn to fly over Ohio.”
Armstrong himself was a major influence on Thomas, especially being an Ohio astronaut. “I was 14 when he walked on the moon,” Thomas remembers. “I watched the landing, the moonwalk. It finished around 2 a.m., and I remember going outside in my backyard and looking out at the moon and I couldn’t believe there were humans walking around out there.” Thomas remembers going to the Armstrong Air & Space Museum when it first opened in the early 70s, seeing the aircraft and the Gemini VIII capsule.
Later, Armstrong continued to be a support and inspiration to Thomas in his own career with NASA. “On my third flight we were allowed to invite people to our launches,” Thomas recalls. “I decided to write Neil Armstrong a letter and invite him to the launch. I said, ‘My name is Don Thomas, I’m one of the Ohio astronauts, you were one of my heroes as a young boy.’ He wrote back really simply and said, ‘I’ll be there.’ The day before launch I got a call from NASA who said Mr. Armstrong wanted to meet with me. I got to spend an hour with Neil, his wife Carol and my wife in our crew quarters.”
“The next morning he went over to the launch control center and met with my wife to wish her well,” Thomas adds. “He tracked down my mom in the family viewing area. It shows you what kind of person he was; he knew what the spouses, what my mom was going through.” Armstrong even signed a photo Thomas carries of his son, which he kept velcroed above his seat during each shuttle mission.
In 2019, Thomas got to serve as the grand marshal for the parade honoring the 50th anniversary of the moonwalk in Wapakoneta. Thomas was inspired by the activities and seeing the next generation of space explorers discovering Armstrong’s legacy: “Any chance I get to do something in Wapakoneta to support Neil and the museum and what he represented to me and the whole country, I’ll always take the opportunity to pitch in.”
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