Fifty years ago this month, three astronauts—Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins—left earth's orbit atop a massive Saturn V rocket and hurtled toward the moon. They arrived four days later, leaving their footprints (and a very famous American flag) on the lunar surface before returning to their home planet on August 24, 1969.
Travelers looking to celebrate this monumental achievement—widely regarded to be mankind's greatest—have a wealth of options in the Golden State. Here are six of our favorites.
1. Tour the ship that recovered the Apollo 11 astronauts
When Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins splashed down in the Pacific, the USS Hornet led the recovery efforts, plucking the astronauts out of the water and returning them to terra firma. That very same ship is now an Alameda museum—the USS Hornet Sea, Air & Space Museum—and it is an awe-inspiring way to relive the glory of the Apollo program.
The allegedly haunted ship has a wide variety of NASA artifacts on display, including an early model of the Lunar Landing Module, an Apollo test capsule, the Mobile Quarantine Facility from Apollo 14, and the helicopters that were used for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo recoveries. Be sure to check out the Splashdown 50 series of events, including the Apollo Retrospective on July 24 that features NASA scientists and astronauts discussing the future of space travel.
2. Explore the Exploratorium
Just a few miles west of Alameda, San Francisco's Exploratorium is offering a dazzling series of events on July 20, the day that Aldrin and Armstrong landed on the moon. The hands-on science center will expand its hours for one day only, opening at 10 a.m. and entertaining guests until midnight to accommodate a jam-packed program.
Highlights include the Egg Drop Lander With Explorables, during which kids get to create their own lunar landers and try to ensure the cargo, an egg, can survive a drop from a second story balcony; a screening of Todd Douglas Miller's acclaimed documentary, Apollo 11, which features newly discovered footage from the mission; and a variety of lectures, including one that explains how eclipses work.
3. Immerse yourself at the Rose Bowl
Now through July 28 you can relive all of the thrills of the space race at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Apollo 11: An Immersive 360-Degree Adventure is a new theater performance featuring a live cast and a Lunar Dome that envelops guests in 40,000 square feet of 360-degree video projection. If you want to feel like you are riding alongside Armstrong et al., this is the show for you. Apollo 11 will tour 18 cities over the next three years, next touching down in Costa Mesa in October.
4. Attend a space-themed film festival in San Diego
The Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park will screen three otherworldly films on July 20: Back to the Moon For Good, a digital movie chronicling the exploits of teams competing for the Google Lunar XPRIZE; A Beautiful Planet, a celebration of earth filmed by astronauts aboard the International Space Station; and Hubble, an inspirational look at the telescope that changed the way we see the universe.
July 20 is also the official opening date of the Fleet's Sun, Earth, Universe exhibition and attraction, a NASA-developed look at our planet, the solar system, and the universe, and more.
5. Stare up at the heavens in Borrego Springs
You can get a great look at the moon, Mars, various satellites, and even the Milky Way galaxy in Borrego Springs, a tiny desert town located two hours east of San Diego. It's California's only International Dark Sky community, which means the locals chip in to minimize light pollution, and the heavenly bodies really pop. Local tour operators take visitors on guided tours of the cosmos on an ongoing basis, and area hotels cater to the stargazing set.
6. Celebrate Apollo 11 Landing Day at the Columbia Memorial Space Center
Many Los Angeles cultural attractions will pay tribute to the 50th anniversary throughout July and beyond, including the Columbia Memorial Space Center, a 20,000-square-foot museum located at the former location of the Boeing plant where the Apollo Command and Service Modules were built. In addition to exhibits, a speaker series, summer camps, and a Lunar Pub Crawl with actual Apollo 11 engineers, the CMSC will host a Landing Day celebration on Saturday, July 20 from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Dress in your best 1960s attire and join in the themed activities, which include live performances potraying Armstrong's first "giant leap" (you can also snap a photo of yourself doing the same). After the celebration, stick around for an outdoor screening of Apollo 11. Admission is free.