Apollo 11 Spacecraft Lands in Your Smartphone

20 December, 2015

Back in 1969, it was the Apollo 11 crew who flew to the moon in a spaceship. School children watched it on small black-and-white televisions.

When U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin stepped foot on the moon, they were the first. Meanwhile, their fellow astronaut Michael Collins circled the moon in their spaceship, named Columbia.

When Armstrong and Aldrin were done with their walk, they left the lunar vehicle on the moon. They returned to the command module, and back to Earth. That part of the spaceship is on view at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

But, if you cannot get to Washington, soon you will be able to see Columbia on your computer or your smartphone.

Digital scientists are scanning — taking pictures — of the inside of the spaceship. They are creating an online model, in three dimensions, or "3D." By looking at these photographs, you will be able to see outer space, the way the astronauts did.

It will be like sitting in their seats.

Want your very own Columbia spaceship? You will be able to print a 3D replica of Columbia. Experts say anyone can make a life-sized model. But they expect most people to make smaller models of the 320 x 400 cm (11' x 13') command module.

The Smithsonian calls Columbia a "Milestone of Flight." It is an important part of the Air and Space Museum collection.

Scientists are using special 3D technology to scan the inside. It is a hands-off project. They are not allowed to touch or climb inside the module. They use 5DSR cameras on long arms to take the 50 megapixel photographs.

The thousands of photographs taken will be combined with 50 laser scans. They will take in a million points to produce 6GB of data.

What would it be like to sit inside Columbia and take a look around? All the images will be loaded into software that allows you to look around the module on a computer screen.

The user will be able to see the Columbia both inside and out.

The Smithsonian says that the 3D technology gives the user ways to see things they cannot see at the museum. And it will give information that even the museum curators have not seen before.

"With the Command Module, no one has been inside since it came into the collection," says Adam Metallo, Smithsonian 3D imaging specialist. "Now the information we capture can give anyone in the world a view of what it looks like inside this incredible piece of history."

A California based company, Autodesk, is working with the Smithsonian on the project. Paul Sullivan works for Autodesk. He says his company built the interactive 3D viewer just for the Smithsonian.

"The 3D technology is revolutionizing museums the same way it has revolutionized architecture, engineering, gaming and Hollywood," Sullivan says. "And the Smithsonian aims to be at the forefront of this transformation."

Autodesk also helped with the 3D display of Cosmic Buddha. Smithsonian curators say it is one of its top 10 exhibits. The digital model made it possible to see details of the sculpture in a new, and clearer, way.

The same 3D scanning was done on the 1903 Wright Flyer. Brothers Wilber and Orville Wright were the first successful pilots in flying machines. The Wright Flyer at the Air and Space Museum is a version of the plane they first flew 255 meters in North Carolina.

The museum is putting together a new display with the Apollo 11 command module. It is set to open in 2020. But you will not have to wait that long for the virtual digital model — that one will be available on line by the middle of 2016.

I'm Anne Ball.

Carolyn Presutti reported this story. Anne Ball adapted it for Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

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Words in This Story

command module –n. the space craft the astronauts rode and lived in going to and from the moon

replica –n. a copy of something

curator –n. a person in charge of things in a museum

view –n. something you can see

incredible – adj. difficult or impossible to believe, or extremely good

forefront –n. the most important part or position

virtual - adj. existing on the internet