WAPAKONETA, Ohio - You may have passed it dozens of times as you whizzed down I-75 to Dayton or Cincinnati. It's hard to miss the big white dome west of the interstate, protruding out of the green countryside like a giant golf ball partially hidden in the rough. Grassy slopes are mounded around a frame that supports the dome, and the whole thing looks like some kind of futuristic moon base.
This is the Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum, built in the hometown of the first man to walk on the moon. It is situated between a Best Western motel and a Waffle House restaurant, and at the edge of its parking lot is a mock-up of a space capsule, with stairs leading into it so people can have their pictures taken by it.
Run by the Ohio Historical Society, the museum was opened in 1972, just three years after Armstrong made his famous “giant leap for mankind” on the moon. The place had a major renovation and expansion in 1999.
Along one side of the entrance corridor is a lineup of Ohio's 23 astronauts, including such well-known names as John Glenn, the first American to circle the earth; space shuttle veteran Tom Henricks, a former Woodville resident, and Judith Resnik, one of seven crew members killed in the 1986 explosion of the shuttle Challenger.
On the other side of the corridor, the history of manned flight is traced through a series of sketches, models, and photos, from French balloonists in the 1700s through today's shuttle missions.
The museum is loaded with Armstrong memorabilia, including the bicycle that Neil rode to flying lessons at the age of 15 and the bright yellow 1946 Aeronca Champion plane in which he earned his student pilot's license - before he even had a driver's license.
Armstrong himself, who is now a businessman in Cincinnati, is not officially connected with the museum, and seldom visits, said John Zwez, the facility's director.
Several exhibits detail the early years of the space race between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. Hanging from the ceiling is a full-size replica of the world's first satellite, Sputnik I, launched in 1957 by the Soviets. The shiny silver globe is surprisingly small, about the size of a beach ball, with four long antennas protruding from it.
Sputnik was one of many space victories for the Soviets, who also recorded the first animal in space, the first human, the first woman, and the first manned vehicle to orbit Earth.
“For a while, they were kind of beating us pretty good,” said Zwez.
Inside the Astro-Theater - that's the big dome visible from the highway - film clips from space missions are shown throughout the day, and a darkened “Infinity Room” lined with mirrors gives visitors a sense of the silent vastness of deep space.
A special display case contains a small moon rock brought back from the Sea of Tranquility by Apollo 11 crew members Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.
Armstrong's space suits from Gemini and Apollo missions are on display, as are a Gemini 8 spacecraft flown by Armstrong and David Scott in 1966, an 8-foot-high Apollo rocket engine, and a model of the lunar module that took Armstrong to the moon's surface in 1969. Zwez said the computing power aboard the actual module was equivalent to what's in one of today's hand-held calculators.
In an exhibit of space food from the 1960s is an unappetizing-looking array that includes beef and potatoes, applesauce, chicken and rice, and chocolate pudding. And if you've ever wondered how astronauts go to the bathroom in space, you can peek behind a small door marked “Privacy please” and find out.
Not many of the museum's displays are of the hands-on variety, but among them is a scale where, for a quarter, you can compare your weight on Earth, Mars, and the moon. If you weighed in at, say, 175 pounds on earth, the scale would show your weight at about 66 pounds on Mars and only 29 pounds on the moon.
And don't leave without trying out one of the simulators where visitors can test their skills at lunar landings and shuttle landings. I tried a couple of shuttle landings, and despite plenty of helpful advice from Mission Control (“Pull up! Pull up!”), it turned out that I didn't have the right stuff.
Twice I tried to land, and both times my shuttle ended up “well outside acceptable limits” and crashed. After the second failure, the wise guy from Mission Control suggested that I not give up my day job.
WHAT: The Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum
WHERE: Just west of I-75 at Exit 111 in Wapakoneta in Auglaize County, about 95 miles southwest of Toledo
HOURS: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday and holidays
COST: $5 for adults, $1.25 for children 6-12, free for children 5 and under
INFO: 1-800-860-0142 or www.ohiohistory.org/places/armstron