Feb 12, 2016 | By Kira

3D Scanning in process. (Matt McFarland/The Washington Post)

After nearly 50 years inside a plastic display case at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, Apollo 11’s Command Module, Columbia, has a new story to tell. A series of never-before-seen handwritten notes and figures left by the astronauts themselves have been revealed thanks to 3D scanning technology, and will be used to help museum curators create a more complete and nuanced account of just what exactly happened during the historic 1969 lunar landing.

Hand-drawn calendar found inside Columbia. Each day of the Apollo 11 mission is crossed out except for landing day.

This ‘space graffiti’, which nobody even knew existed, never mind expected to find, was revealed while researchers were 3D scanning the interior of Columbia for the Smithsonian’s ongoing 3D Digitization Program. Consisting of a series of handwritten notes and even a calendar, the findings provide a unique glimpse into the experiences of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins during their historic mission to the Moon.

“The notes, figures, and a calendar, presumably improvised during the mission, tell us something about what life was like on the way to the Moon and back,” said Allan Needell, a curator in the Space History Department. “The notes can be compared with audio and recorded transcripts of communication between Columbia and Houston to suggest when and by whom they were written, providing new insights into of one of humankind’s greatest adventures."

The astronaut’s impromptu inscriptions include a series of numbers and notations, jotted down in pen or pencil just to the left of where Command Module pilot, Michael Collins, would have stood. The numbers correspond a set of coordinates sent from Houston, and used by Collins to (unsuccessfully) map the location of the Lunar Module Eagle. By matching Houston’s transcripts with Collin’s notes, experts might finally be able to piece together what went wrong.

"These notes illustrate improvisation during the mission and modification of pre-flight plans for what items were to be placed in each locker."

Another interesting bit of ‘astro-graffiti’ provides even more clues into how the astronauts responded to and coped with life in space: a small, hand-drawn calendar just below one of the lockers shows each day of the mission, crossed out by one. The only day that remains uncrossed is July 24th, the day of the crew’s splashdown into the Pacific. Though we still don’t know which astronaut was responsible, nor when the calendar was started, the calendar has led to many engrossing discussions amongst the museum staff.

This image was was taken shortly after the cabin's arrival back in the country. Note the calendar, which is just visible in the bottom left corner.

Why the Smithsonian was 3D scanning Apollo 11 in the first place is itself an interesting story. A few months ago, the cultural institution teamed up with Autodesk to create a complete, full-color and highly detailed 3D scan of the Columbia, which served as the primary living quarters for the three-person crew. Using advanced 3D laser scanning technology, the Smithsonian plans to create a stunningly detailed, interactive 3D model, which could be explored at the museum and online. The same digital data will also be converted into a 3D printable file, for space enthusiasts to 3D print their very own Command Module at home.

Despite being one of the “most challenging 3D scanning projects” Autodesk has ever taken on, on account of the spacecraft’s cramped interior and laser-reflecting titanium surfaces, the discovery of the space graffiti alone proves that it is a very worthwhile project, and makes us even more excited for the finished 3D model and 3D printable files.

This note, not among the newly-discovered writings, was left by Michael Collins after splashdown: "Spacecraft 107, alias Apollo 11, alias ‘Columbia.’
The Best Ship to Come Down the Line. God Bless Her."

“We will continue to study the secrets Columbia holds, nearly 50 years after it completed its mission and for years to come,” said Needell, who revealed the significance of the findings in the National Air and Space Museum's blog. “Columbia isn’t just a piece of machinery, it is a living artifact. As a curator, it is thrilling to know that we can still learn new things about one of the most iconic artifacts in the entire Smithsonian Collection.”



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Joe Q. wrote at 4/6/2016 5:31:30 PM:

"Still don't know which astronaut was responsible" -- Collins and Aldrin are still with us, why not ask them?

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