Winking at the moon in Wapakoneta

The futuristic architecture of the Armstrong Air and Space Museum was meant to resemble a moon base. The museum houses, among other artifacts, the Gemini 8 capsule that Armstrong flew in 1966.

The whole world watched on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong planted his left foot in the virgin lunar dust. That “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” rocketed Armstrong to instant immortality. As the first person to stand on a celestial body, Armstrong fulfilled the late President Kennedy’s goal of putting an American on the moon and rendered the United States the winner in its space race with the Soviet Union.

In Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta, hordes of newscasters surrounded his parents’ house. As souvenir hunters pulled grass from their lawn, Stephen and Viola Armstrong hosted a splashdown party on July 24, when their son and his crewmates, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, returned to Earth. Stephen Armstrong even passed out cigars with wrappers reading, “It’s a boy and he landed safely.”

Weeks later, 80,000 people descended on the town of 5,000 for Wapakoneta’s homecoming parade. Although it lacked the ticker tape featured in other Apollo 11 parades in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, Wapakoneta’s grand marshal was comedian Bob Hope, and the folks crowding Auglaize Street were close enough to the convertible carrying Armstrong that they could reach out and shake his hand. High above the bunting and flags, a giant photo of Armstrong was emblazoned with the caption “OUR HERO.”

With 2019 marking the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s “small step,” Wapakoneta will host a 10-day-long celebration July 12–21. Coinciding with the community’s annual Summer Moon Festival, the “First on the Moon” activities will commence with hot air balloons and culminate with a Wink at the Moon Concert (after Armstrong’s 2012 death, his family requested that people “think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink” when looking at the moon). The 50th anniversary parade on July 14 will duplicate the 1969 parade route, saluting the out-of-this-world feat that President Kennedy said would be “the measure of the best of our energies and skills.”

When then-Governor James Rhodes proposed a museum to honor the achievement, Wapakonetans raised much of the money needed to construct it. With futuristic architecture resembling a moon base, the Armstrong Air and Space Museum debuted on July 20, 1972, exactly three years after Armstrong landed in the Sea of Tranquility. Though ever the reluctant hero, he attended the opening ceremonies.

Many of the 50th anniversary observances will revolve around the museum, which honors Armstrong and highlights Ohio’s contributions to aviation and space exploration. Fittingly enough, several space shuttle astronauts — including Ohioans Gregory H. Johnson and Donald A. Thomas — will join in the festivities.

The museum’s collection of Armstrong memorabilia includes such mundane items as his first grade lunch pail and his high school yearbook, which lists his extracurricular activities (band, glee club, student council) and contains the telling notation, “He thinks, he acts, ’tis done.” Also on display is the bicycle he rode to flying lessons — he obtained his pilot’s license before he got a driver’s license — as well as the Aeronca Champion in which he learned to fly. Two other aircraft Armstrong actually piloted — a rare experimental jet and the 1966 Gemini 8 space capsule that infamously spun out of control while docking — are there as well.

During July, Wapakoneta restaurants are featuring Apollo 11-themed fare such as CinnaMoon pancakes, and visitors can take an Armstrong driving tour to sites that include his family’s church, which kept a prayer vigil for his safe return throughout the mission, and the house — now graced by a historic marker — where Armstrong lived. “It’s a beautiful little house that conveys a sense of his all-American background and upbringing,” says Donna Grube of Auglaize and Mercer counties’ Greater Grand Lake Visitors Region.

“Armstrong’s walking on the moon was a triumph,” says Grube. “People everywhere were joyous because mankind had made it to another place.”

While the euphoria that Wapakoneta’s newspaper captured in the headline “NEIL STEPS ON THE MOON” has waned, the town’s appreciation for Armstrong never has. In fact, the first man on the moon remains a steady presence in Wapakoneta: Armstrong images hang in Wapakoneta’s post office; there are streets in town called Lunar Drive and Apollo Drive; and the nearest airport is the Neil Armstrong Airport in nearby New Knoxville.

“Armstrong is a major figure in history,” says Dante Centuori, the Armstrong museum’s director. “Wapakoneta retains the natural affection and pride that occurs when someone close to you accomplishes something significant.”