Podcast: Discussion with Creators of Nixon Library Exhibit on Apollo 11
The Nixon Presidential Library’s new special exhibit, Apollo 11: One Giant Leap for Mankind. (William Vasta/Richard Nixon Foundation)
Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Historic Moon Landing
This July will mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. To commemorate the anniversary, the Nixon Library has a new interactive special exhibit that includes artifacts from the actual moon landing. It opened April 29, 2019, and it runs through the year. It’s called “Apollo 11: One Giant Leap for Mankind.” On this edition of the Nixon Now Podcast, we talked to the exhibit creators, William Maple, its chief designer, and Shelly DeSimone, its researcher and writer.
Click here for more information about “Apollo 11: One Giant Leap for Mankind.”
Jonathan Movroydis: You’re listening to Nixon Now Podcast. I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter at @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org. This July will mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. To commemorate the anniversary, the Nixon Library has a new interactive special exhibit that includes artifacts from the actual moon landing. It opened this week, and it runs through the year. It’s called Apollo 11: One Giant Leap for Mankind. On this edition of the Nixon Now Podcast, we talked to the exhibit creators, William Maple, its chief designer, and Shelly DeSimone, its researcher and writer. Welcome to both of you.
William Maple: Hello.
Shelly DeSimone: Thank you.
William Maple: Thank you.
Jonathan Movroydis: We’re on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. At this point in time, why do you think the story is so meaningful for America? I’ll start with you, Shelly.
Shelly DeSimone: Well, the story is a celebration of thousands of people who worked together on one goal, to land man on the moon. And for those of us who were alive during this period, it was a joyous memory. And I remember, I was nine years old at the time. And my father called me in and called all of us, he said, “Come in kids,” and there were six of us, “You’re gonna see this historic event.” And I remember watching it, you know, in black and white from a console on television, much like what we have in the exhibit in the 1969 room. And so for younger generations, however, the Apollo 11 exhibit is an opportunity to learn about this tremendous historical event.
Jonathan Movroydis: William, what do you think…what do you hope to convey in the design of this exhibit?
William Maple: Well, two things. Yesterday, we were opening it up for the first time. And there were a couple hundred children out front, but also their parents and grandparents. And I asked the question, asked for a raise of hands, “How many of you remember where you were when we landed on the moon?” And, of course, the whole audience of young fourth graders and so forth, didn’t raise their hands, but many of the adults surrounding them did.
And what I wanted to convey is that, one is that there’s a whole generation that doesn’t know the story, but also there’s a generation that does remember the success of this, and sort of the mentoring and sharing this is what we experienced. This was throughout the world, a joyful experience. And it’s not taught in schools. And I hope that they’ll learn, and share this, and remember this before that generation’s lost.
Jonathan Movroydis: Shelly, we’ll start with you, but William jump in. Could you take us through the writing, research, and design process behind Apollo 11: One Giant Leap for Mankind?
Shelly DeSimone: Sure. We started with a storyline as we always do with exhibits. And so from that outline, that storyline, we began to research. And just part of the research was looking at stories that would tell about the experience of the astronauts and of the people involved in creating the technology that it took to go to the moon. And from that point then, we had to brainstorm artifacts, what would we use to show our story? And what would best tell the story for the audience? And for design, we knew we had to limit the story. So sometimes, it hurt, but we had to cut some things because we were limited to the space that we had. But we tried best to cover it from beginning, the space war, you know, with the Soviet Union to what’s going even now on with space travel, with international space travel available.
Jonathan Movroydis: William, do you have anything to add in terms of the design process?
William Maple: Shelly and I have worked on several projects together over many years. One of them was her telling the story of Barbara Bush over at the Bush Library in the Gulf War. And there’s been a lot of challenging stories. But usually, we have someone who’s a doctorate, you know, to keep us accountable, and so forth. And this was a rare co-curatorship of this project. So it was a whole another line of responsibility. But there were tremendous hours and researching a lot of technical information, but we wanted to give it a human face.
So there are maybe 10,000 photos that had to be sorted through that, thankfully, NASA provides without usage rights. But to go through and find that image that gives it a human story that even though we want to address them, we wanna motivate. And what we do is interpretive design. There’s a lot of data, but how do you interpret that so that somebody cares and says, you know, provide an answer for, “So what? Why should you care about this?” And that’s what we hope to do in this exhibit.
Jonathan Movroydis: Shelly, you’d mentioned the story arc. What is the first thing that you see, William, when you when you enter the exhibit?
William Maple: We started this new. Usually people came in one door. So I came up with that crazy idea of one way track through the exhibit. So we utilized the hallway that really wasn’t meant for exhibit space. But what you do see is a contrast in worldviews. There’s a communist, USSR Soviet view, which is this is kind of a militarized approach to top-down, and the other side is America’s view that this is a capitalist, and it’s a civilian endeavor. And it shows who is winning and what approach drives the results. And we do win. So it’s a wonderful start of this is a Cold War. A lot of younger people don’t realize the severity of that. And at the end of the hallway, we have a blinking sputnik at the end that sort of sets the stage for their winning. They have a satellite up in the space, and we need to address that. And that’s the next stage of that is Kennedy addressing what do we do.
Jonathan Movroydis: This is a presidential library, so I’d like to talk about the presidency a little bit. How does presidential leadership get portrayed in your exhibit, specifically, you know, the Cold War presidents, Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and President Nixon?
Shelly DeSimone: Well, we did want to feature the presidents who were involved in it. And it started really with President Eisenhower, who established the Rudimentary Space Program. And then of course with President Kennedy, he clearly defined the goal in his speech, “We choose to go to the Moon.” And he had that specific goal of going to the moon and returning safely. And he used that red line, “We choose to go to the Moon.” And from there, President Johnson continued his work. And then of course, with President Nixon, he honored President Johnson by naming the Space Center in Houston after that President, after Johnson. And then President Nixon was president, of course, during all the Apollo missions. So we did wanna show historically, the President’s involvement in this, and the battle that they were waging against the Soviets with the Cold War.
Jonathan Movroydis: We’re in the center of Southern California here in Yorba Linda. William, in this exhibit, there is a Southern California angle that’s important to the Apollo mission. Could you touch upon that a little bit?
William Maple: I grew up in Orange County back when we had orange groves. And I watched the transition from early ‘60s on moving from agriculture to aerospace. And I can’t tell you how many of my neighbors, even family members, worked in the aerospace industry. Shelly’s father did, so did my mother. So I wanted to honor their work. There were 400,000 people, roughly, that worked on getting a man to the moon, but a significant percentage, a higher percentage were in Southern California. And I’d love to know more about Nixon’s involvement in that, you know, how did it end up here? Was it just because we had wonderful weather?
And it’s a whole another level of what we could do exhibitry about. But part of my family’s urban folktales is… And my grandfather told me this directly is that, he loaned the money to Arnold Beckman to start his company. And so wonderfully, we have the Beckman Foundation loaned us some of their artifacts to convey this was done locally. And we couldn’t cover all the companies, but this evoked how many, and it was a great example of Southern California’s contributions.
Jonathan Movroydis: Another angle is STEM and the idea of scientific research. The challenge here is making STEM palatable for a general audience. Could you describe the process behind that, Shelly?
Shelly DeSimone: Well, William talked about putting a human face to STEM. And we wanted to do that by looking at the people involved. And so we talk in part of the exhibit about the people who created the code, the workers. And we have a map of California with…it shows all the different companies involved. So we wanted to get people to understand that there’s people behind the technology. And so we have Margaret Hamilton as an example. But I liked…especially, and this was really Williams idea, was showing the engineers in their working, and bringing in a table that they used, and showing the protractors, and all the different tools that they used. So early STEM things that would give students and people who didn’t know about this time period kind of just a vision and window into it.
Jonathan Movroydis: One of the large titles in the exhibit says national purpose. What did you mean by that?
Shelly DeSimone: Well, that began really with President Kennedy. He setup what we needed to do to dominate the space race. And what he created was not just a military purpose and a military aspect of it, it was everybody getting involved in this goal to go to the moon. And I think people bought into that national purpose and feel pride in what we were doing, and elation when we finally did it, when we landed a man on the moon and returned them safely.
Jonathan Movroydis: William, could you tell us a little bit about the artifacts in this exhibit? What artifacts did you find to put in this exhibit? And how were they acquired?
William Maple: One of the main textures in an exhibition, there’s the word, there’s media and so forth. But artifacts are the evidence that something happened. It’s very tangible. So there’s a request we put out for artifacts throughout the countries, you know, saying that this is the anniversary. But unfortunately, everybody else put the same call out. So it was quite a challenge to receive things, everything from Smithsonian to Johnson Center, in terms of what we could get and how quickly we needed to get them.
But we originally went through your archive here at the Nixon Foundation, Nixon Library, and dug through what I did know originally from doing previous exhibits here, we knew we had the phone, we knew we had the hard hat. But sometimes you feel like Indiana Jones digging through just treasure. We don’t know what’s down there. And sometimes, Christine from the NORA will reveal things to us. But one of them was what I thought was a toy spaceship, the space shuttle.
And after looking at the photo for quite a while, I had rejected that thinking it was a bad gift that I realized in the photo, when he reveals the space shuttle program in San Clemente, that that was the original artifact as evidence of Nixon initiating this program. But I didn’t know the treasure that we had down below until I looked at the photo further.
Jonathan Movroydis: Did you get any participation from NASA?
William Maple: Yes. And from the Smithsonian, from Johnson Space Center, we received the Apollo 17 space rock. There was a lot of the X-15 uniform. We also received the LEM training module, the control arm, the one that Armstrong almost passed away and crashed, you know, and died just the way up that. So I wanted really tangible things to augment everything else that you receive in the room.
Jonathan Movroydis: William, could you tell us a little bit about what I think is really cool is this virtual reality experience in the exhibit?
William Maple: That wasn’t originally part of the design. And I’d probably have less grey hair and make more money doing rubber stamp exhibits. But it was one of those evolved. And I was listening to a lighting podcast, like this one, about my CAD program. And they said for their VIP clients, they put on a headset and walk them through their space. I thought, “Wait, can we walk through this space?” And I could control or make a Lunar Lander in CAD, and you could walk through that. But my youngest son, without his help, I hired him about a year earlier, Luca, I gave him the assignment of figuring out how to get my program into his headset for gaming, embarrassed to state that. But he was successful. And then I thought, “Well, maybe there are games out there that we could do, too.” And we found a company in Ireland that produced educational software.
And after several months of discussion, they allowed us to use their program, which is the amazing program upstairs that Rick Armstrong walked through in our demo. And he recognized and saw things, or saw things for the first time that he had never seen, the grainy black and white images, and so forth. So, I’ve seen 80-year-old, 90-year-old ladies put that headset on lately, and just are so ecstatic and having so much fun. So it’s a wonderful element of texture that we just have not done before.
Jonathan Movroydis: What other multimedia elements are included?
William Maple: There’s the Launchpad, which is really fun. I wanted to give people a sense of you see old photos where everyone’s watching a giant public event of, you know, quite often a disaster. But in this case, something very positive, which was moon launch. And so we have some vintage looking televisions and so forth. But that was a multimedia program that it’s all being fed from one source and branched out to the different monitors that all have to show launch in a store window from various angles. And Sean Hall produced that and did the editing.
And the other thing is I wanted to show the giddy part of President Nixon meeting with the astronauts at the conclusion of this, you don’t see Richard Nixon…I’ve never seen as joyful. And some of the astronauts, you know, as you see inside of the quarantine air stream. And so to see that in that window, that environment was really fun to add.
Jonathan Movroydis: Getting back to the theme of presidential leadership, you mentioned Nixon meeting the astronauts in the quarantine area. Early on in the exhibit, we see Richard Nixon in the Kitchen Debate, the famous Kitchen Debate in 1959 with Nikita Khrushchev. What is the common thread of Richard Nixon throughout the exhibit?
Shelly DeSimone: Well, I think he was tough during the Cold War. I think he called the Soviets out on things and we saw that in the Kitchen Debate. And he wasn’t afraid to kind of tangle and go at it. And he was extremely involved in the space program. We saw him develop relationships with the astronauts. We see that especially with that call to the moon. He was delighted to talk to them. He celebrated them, after they returned, they went on a worldwide tour. He was also terribly aware of the dangers of the mission. And we see that in the speech that he had prepared, which he never had to give and that is in case a moon disaster. So I think his heart was into the space program and he enjoyed it. And we see that especially, just the delight he had when he’s on the USS Hornet and celebrating the astronauts there.
Jonathan Movroydis: The 1960s really captures an interest in space and the space program. How did you convey the theme of the 1960s in this whole exhibit experience?
William Maple: What I wanted to convey is how rudimentary technology was. And this is something my son, Luca, when he was working with me pointed out, they did this on drafting tables, they drew this by hand, they used hydraulics. He was dumbfounded by that because today, you can pick up your phone and you have a calculator, you know, the Texas Instruments was just introducing the calculators, very expensive and rare items at the time.
So one of the things you wanna do with a visitor is, again, give it a sense of humanity that this was what we were working with at the time. So in the store window, we have flashbulb cameras. And cassette tapes were just coming on online at the time. That was state of the art technology. But what you want to do is connect with the visitor, be a visitor’s advocate. And if they point out, “I had one of those, you know, I remember this,” you’ve known you touch something that’s special in them.
And so we have the drafting table inside of the drawers that, you know, you can pull out. We want people to see that and the drafting arm to connect that way. But also in the store window, we have instamatic camera, the polarizer just coming online. And in a room, a living room, where we watch the call to the moon, the man on the moon, is Julie Nixon Eisenhower discusses her quotes in there.
We have World Book encyclopedia, which was the Google at that time. You know, we have the resin grapes that my dad made, the macramé that my mom made, and the style and flavor of colors at the time. And we embrace it, cigarettes and ashtrays. Alcohol and ashtrays were everywhere at the time. And then you have the black and white set with 13 channels. That’s all you were given. You didn’t have Netflix at the time. So people were watching this. We wanted to share that the entire world was probably watching this on black and white television in their living room.
Jonathan Movroydis: Last week, I spoke with James Donovan, who’s the author of the new book, “Shoot for the Moon.” And his story arc begins with sputnik and it ends with the moon landing. He argues that that is the end of the space race. Is there a way that this is portrayed in this exhibit?
Shelly DeSimone: We show that in that section where we say what the Soviets achieved first. And if you look at that list on the wall, they did everything. I mean, they had the first man, Yuri Gagarin, orbit the Earth. They had the first woman in space. They were doing everything before we did. And we were losing the Cold War. And then when we were able to pull off this amazing Apollo 11 mission, where we took three astronauts up and two walked on the moon, and all three returned safely, the Soviets then dropped out of the race. It was over and we had won. And it was just a tremendous moment in history for us. And I think the United States felt it. We were elated and joyful.
Jonathan Movroydis: William, could you tell us about some of the big things that will pop out of visitors when they visit this new exhibition?
William Maple: Starting early on, and it’s not big, and that’s the whole point of it is sputniks, only two-foot diameter. So we have a two scale sputnik hanging from the ceiling being very intimidating. And it’s, you know, blinking red light. And it indicates that people didn’t really see this when they claim they saw this in the sky, because two-foot diameter BB, you’d probably not see. As you come around the corner, you’ll see a space capsule to scale. And to give you a sense of the magnitude, there’s a 3D printed Saturn V. And on the top of it, there’s a low-grade capsule to give you a sense of this enormous rocket. This is the capsule. So, you know, we couldn’t fit a Satellite V in the in the whole room. But that’s something that we wanted to explain is this little capsule was on top, and returned these astronauts.
As you come around the corner, we created a two-scale Armstrong taking his first step on the moon, sculptured along with the leg and ladder of the LEM, the lunar module. And so, hopefully, it was a photo opportunity to give people a sense of being there, the environment, we change out the carpet, and so forth. And that’s in the room with the virtual reality. We also created the living room to kind of immerse you into the 60s. And then there’s the quarantine unit to think of what would it be like to spend 21 days with two other individuals in this environment? So it’s a lot of textures that we added to it that are large to give you a sense sort of environment.
Jonathan Movroydis: On what note does the visitor leave?
William Maple: My hope is that there’s a pride and what we accomplished, you know, not an arrogant pride, but because it took 400 Americans to pull this off. Quite often, we look at, you know, was America ever great, you know, is it exceptional? And the flag salute at the end of this exhibit conveys that. And we’re hoping that people will take a photo of themselves. I’ve seen a lot of people do so just very thrilled about, “Wow, I forgot about this part of our history. We don’t teach this. We don’t talk about it anymore.” Here’s 50 years later, please discuss it, share with your grandchildren, “I remember this.”
Jonathan Movroydis: Shelly, what do you hope visitors get from their experience when they come to the Nixon Library to see Apollo 11: One Giant Leap for Mankind?
Shelly DeSimone: I’d like them to learn about America’s exciting history of the space travel and know that our achievement in space were something that we celebrated and that we need to continue to celebrate. And that that feeling of achievement needs to be passed down to future generations.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guests in studio today are William Maple and Shelly DeSimone, creators of a new special exhibition at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, Apollo 11: One Giant Leap for Mankind. Thank you both for your time.
William Maple: Thank you.
Shelly DeSimone: Thank you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org, or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.