Fifty years ago this month, the first humans stepped foot on the Moon, and as they did it, a group of scientists walked them through the historic landing at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. It was stressful. Enough cigarettes were smoked to down Godzilla. Enough coffee was drank to drown a herd of humpback whales. But it was also heroic as hell. As the entire nation watched, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left footprints and an American flag behind, joined Michael Collins back in the command module, and survived the trip home. You’ve taken American history class. You know the deal.
That was back in 1969. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing, NASA decided to renovate the Apollo Mission Control Center in Houston to its former glory. Well, not so much glory. It was more of a den littered with coffee cups and trash. There was no natural lighting. The effort was led by iconic NASA flight director Gene Kranz, who helmed the Apollo 11 mission, the Apollo 13 mission (“Houston, we have a problem.”), and more. It took him and NASA five years of fundraising and two years of restoration to get the control center ready for the ribbon cutting ceremony last week. It is now open to the public in time for the exact Apollo 11 anniversary, July 20.
If you looked at the restored mission control now, you’d think you had stepped back into the ’60s alongside the men and women who put the first people on the moon. (NASA decommissioned the room in 1992, and it had since fallen into disrepair.) The restoration team collected coffee mugs, ashtrays, rotary phones, and carpet that dated back to the era to recreate it as precisely as possible. They consulted photographs and interviewed former flight controllers to place all their artifacts accurately. The screens show maps and broadcasts from back in the day. RC Colas and cigarettes litter tables.
“I walked into that room last Monday for the first time when it was fully operational, and it was dynamite. I literally wept,” Kranz told NPR. “The emotional surge at that moment was incredible. I walked down on the floor, and when we did the ribbon cutting the last two days, believe it or not, I could hear the people talking in that room from 50 years ago. I could hear the controllers talking.”
A lot has happened in 50 years—war, peace, the rise of sneaker culture, the crippling effects of climate change, 15 seasons of The Bachelorette. We also haven’t sent an American back on the moon since 1972, but that might change. Trump wants to get us back to the moon so that we can explore even further to Mars (it’s one of his few non-repugnant policy plans, although he’s terrible at communicating it), as do a few very rich men who work in technology. NASA does, too.
“Our goal 50 years ago was to prove we could land humans on the Moon and return them safely to Earth. Our goal now is to return to the Moon to stay, in a sustainable way,” Johnson Space Center director Mark Geyer said in a statement. “I’m thrilled this facility will be open for the public to view. It is my hope that it will serve as inspiration for generations to come.”
The brand new, but very old, Apollo 11 mission control center just might be the coolest museum exhibit to open in the U.S. yet.