WASHINGTON - Fifty years ago, men were launched to the moon on a Saturn V rocket. Only three of this type of rocket still exist, and none has ever been to D.C. Until now.
Starting Tuesday night, Americans will have a chance to experience the Apollo 11 rocket launch and moon landing in a multi-part visual show, starting with the illumination of the east face of the Washington Monument with a 363-foot Saturn V.
Later in the week, visitors can experience an immersive 17-minute documentary and countdown to liftoff with a 40-foot-wide re-creation of the famous Kennedy Space Center clock.
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"We thought this would be the ultimate experience of simulating what it was like 50 years ago when a Saturn V launched three people to the moon," said Katie Moyer, Program Specialist at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, which commissioned the project.
"Apollo 50: Go for the Moon" is part of an effort by the National Air and Space Museum to engage audiences through unconventional exhibits, said Nicholas Partridge, Public Affairs Specialist at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
"It began as the idea that these two images would make a really unforgettable visual for the anniversary that might drive home the scale of the accomplishment for people who weren't there to see it first hand," Partridge said.
To make their vision a reality, the National Air and Space Museum partnered with the U.S. Department of the Interior and 59 Productions, an award-winning video and projection design company. Boeing and Raytheon sponsored the project.
The static rocket display will go live July 16, 17, and 18 from 9:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. EDT. The free show will run at 9:30 p.m., 10:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. on July 19 and July 20. Viewing areas are on the National Mall in front of the Smithsonian Castle between 9th and 12th Streets.
How they did it
It's no simple feat to project light hundreds of feet into the sky. But 59 Productions knows a thing or two about large-scale displays.
Created in 2006, 59 Productions has spearheaded projects such as the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. The group also has engineered projections onto the United Nation headquarters in New York, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Sydney Opera House.
A team of 25 storytellers and technical producers at 59 Productions has been working on the "Apollo 50" project for the past six months - along with dozens more staff and security for the event itself.
According to Richard Slaney, managing director of 59 Productions, the Washington Monument display requires a series of 24 carefully calibrated projectors set back from the foot of the monument. Three to five projectors will converge on each part of the monument to achieve the necessary brightness and clarity.
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"On some levels it's a very simple surface. We're just projecting onto the east face," Slaney said. "But that rectangle is 550 feet tall, and it's one of the most precious and esteemed monuments in the whole of the U.S. So there's a real sensitivity to making sure we get it right."
The 17-minute show also features full-motion visual projections on screens set up along 12th Street.
"If you go to a cinema or a stage, it's pretty clear where you watch and what you do. Here, we're making an audience area, but your attention is going to be fought for between this LED wall, these huge projection screens and the monument itself," Slaney said.
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The viewing area on the National Mall can accommodate up to 24,000 people at a time for each of six separate showings over the two-day run.
"That's the thing that's really exciting about it - the scale of the show," Slaney said. "It's 550 feet tall, and you're watching with 20,000 other excited people around you. What we hope we can do with that is emulate the excitement, positivity and hopefulness of the mission itself."
Follow Grace Hauck on Twitter at @grace_hauck.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Apollo 11 moon landing: Rocket to project on Washington Monument