Today, it’s a staggering piece of space lore: that the astronauts onboard Spacecraft 107—aka Apollo 11—actually used a sextant to do backup navigation. However, the crew took it in stride, jotting down readings on the craft’s sterile white walls as they sailed toward the moon to become the first humans to touch it.
Those manual navigation notes, as well as much more personal messages, scrawled inside the spacecraft were long lost to history. Apollo 11’s command module has been encased in glass at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., inaccessible to historians, for decades. But yesterday, a team of artists, scientists, and curators announced the results of the most intensive examination of the spacecraft’s interior since it entered the Smithsonian—including the uncovering of notes, comments, and even some humor inside the craft.
In other words, it’s astronaut graffiti.
On one white cabinet inside the spacecraft, it looks like someone had tried to erase what they wrote—look closely, and it clearly reads “smelly waste.” According to the Smithsonian, this was the result of some “improvisation” going on during the crew’s eight-day mission. This cabinet was supposed to hold the astronaut’s personal effects but was clearly repurposed. “One of the astronauts seems to have posted a reminder that the substitute items should probably remain there undisturbed for the rest of the mission,” the museum dryly explained yesterday.
There’s also a hand-drawn calendar titled “July 1969” drawn in blocky print on one white interior panel, with the Earthly days of the week marked off, one by one. Another note shows where the “launch day urine bags” for Buzz Aldrin and another crew member, whose name was erased, were stored. One has to imagine they were extensive given the nature of their unprecedented, and probably fairly terrifying, trip into outer space.
These handwritten notes were only theoreticals for decades, lost except for photographs, until a team from the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office and the software company Autodesk were granted access to carefully 3-D scan the interior for the first time. “Even the curator [Allan Needell], who’s worked at the Smithsonian for decades, really hasn’t gotten to get a good look inside,” says Adam Metallo, one half of the digitization team that led the project. “It’s a priority to preserve this object for future generations, and providing access to answer particular research questions puts that object at risk—it just doesn’t happen.”
Metallo and his partner, Vince Rossi, are both artists by training, but today they’re leading the project to 3-D scan and digitize the Smithsonian network’s 138 million objects, including Apollo 11, for public consumption online and through VR. They’ve traveled to Chile’s Atacama Desert to scan fossilized whale bones with the National Museum of Natural History. They’ve scanned the Wright Brother’s original 1903 Flyer. Working with Autodesk, they’re developing new ways of bringing the museum network’s unseen collection online for people to explore. “It’s not just about being able to spin around in the command module,” as Autodesk’s Elmer Bol, who worked on the Apollo project, put it yesterday. “It’s about giving a curator a platform to tell the story of things that have gone on in that command module.”
While 3-D scanning is becoming more and more commonplace, the command module was no average job for several reasons. Not only is the module very small, it’s also very detailed—and full of reflective surfaces, which 3-D scanners tend to choke on. “We had to bring basically every tool we had our disposal, and Autodesk brought every tool they had at their disposal,” Metallo says. By mounting the scanners on a mechanical arm, they were able to access every angle of the interior, while Autodesk provided the high-resolution technology they needed to capture the tiniest details.
The team did an initial, weeklong scan as reconnaissance, then spent more than a month analyzing the results and planning for a final scan that would fill in any remaining information. They collected multiple terabytes of information over weeks of scanning that they’re still working to analyze completely—in June, they hope to launch an online model anyone can explore, and they’re experimenting with a VR version of the module as well.
The technology brought some lesser-known stories to light. When the ship splashed down in the Pacific that summer 45 years ago, the astronauts had to stay inside a quarantine tent, connected directly to the lunar module aboard the Navy ship that picked them up, according to the museum. At some point during those long weeks, command module pilot Michael Collins decided he wanted to leave a last message on the fire-blackened ship. He crawled back into the module and wrote in a looping, cursive script: “The Best Ship to Come Down the Line. God Bless Her.”