Fifty years ago, Americans crowded around grainy televisions to witness Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touching ground on the moon. That moment was extraordinary for all who watched it, but with the launch of the "Apollo's Moon Shot" augmented reality app today, the Smithsonian Channel is betting it can bring new audiences closer to the experience of the landing than the original footage ever could.
The AR app, now available for Apple and Android devices, places users on the surface of the moon, letting them virtually escape their own surrondings and moonwalk the way Aldrin and Armstrong would have—to witness the craters dotting the landscape around them, to jump up and down in a state of altered gravity, to gaze out at the darkening sky—with information about the landing integrated into the app’s design.
"It makes the landing more interactive, and it allows people to bring the Apollo program into their own experience." says Teasel Muir-Harmony, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum. The app’s developers used 3-D scans of Neil Armstrong’s space suit and of the Lunar Command Module, which placed the astronauts on the moon, in order to authentically replicate the feeling and the scale of the landing. In addition to walking on the moon, the app allows users to simulate the mission takeoff and charts the Apollo’s path through the moon’s airspace. Two games, “The Moon Shot Challenge” and the “Lunar Landing Challenge,” tests users’ ability to guide a safe landing through a lunar terrain dotted with boulders and craters.
The Smithsonian Channel is launching the app in conjunction with its six-part "Apollo's Moon Shot" series, which premiered earlier this month with new episodes airing in the weeks to come. The series, which features Muir-Harmony as an expert, narrates the story of the Apollo 11 landing through artifacts in the Smithsonian collection along with rare archival footage and audio tapes.
Muir Harmony consulted on the television series, and the app it spawned, with the goal of highlighting a side of the moon landing that much of the public hasn't encountered. "We often focus on the astronauts, but over 400,000 people worked on the program," she says.
Under tight deadlines, teams of NASA scientists needed to map out ways to make day-to-day life transferrable into space. A group of engineers, for instance, cobbled together personal items like zero-gravity sleeping bags for the astronauts, and they developed exercise equipment—later dubbed the Exergenie (a "rope friction device")—that let astronauts work out even in a weightless environment.
"One of the things that people don't always realize is how many details were involved in a program like that, how many new technologies had to be developed, and how many people had to work together to make it all possible," said Muir-Harmony.
The point of the app is to bring these forgotten shades of the Apollo landing to people who aren't easily able to visit the Air and Space Museum.
"The series and the app do a wonderful job of exposing people to the complexities of that program," said Muir-Harmony. "It’s exciting for us to be able use augmented reality to give people more access to the artifacts in our national collections.