Cité de l'Espace in Toulouse, France is a museum in the middle. It is in the middle of France’s Aerospace Valley and the European Space Industry. But it is also geographically in the middle of the two competing superpowers in the Space Race that ended with Apollo 11.
From its vantage point in the middle, Cité de l'Espace has its own story to tell. The museum features a mix of Soviet and American space hardware, like an American Apollo lunar module and a Soviet Soyuz capsule. The museum also features an extentive collection of French-made space hardware.
In this episode commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, I visit Cité de l'Espace to see their preparations for “Apollo Day,” discuss a museum on the lunar surface, and see how the Space Race is presented from the middle.
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TranscriptBelow is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 67. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear, and only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.
All over the city of Toulouse, France, on buses and on the streets, there are ads featuring a smiling moon with an American astronaut reflected in its sunglasses.
[Audio of Toulouse radio ad]
Apollo Day is the 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 moon landing — the first and for now, only time humans have made it to another celestial body — hosted by the Cite de l’Espace museum in Toulouse.
[Audio of Toulouse radio ad]
Toulouse is the centre of the European aerospace industry, with the headquarters of Airbus anchoring what is known as Aerospace Valley — a cluster of engineering and research centers in the heart of France. Like the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex featured in episode 64, the museum also has aspects of themed attractions, but unlike most space museums in the United States, the museum presents hardware and content from multiple space agencies around the world, taking a more global approach to the history and future of space exploration.
This could be because, in addition to being the Centre of the European aerospace industry, the museum and the rest of France sit in the middle: physically in the middle of the two competing superpowers in the Space Race that ended with Apollo 11.
NASA, the American Space Administration, and the Soviet Space Program are both well represented here. The museum features a mix of Soviet and American space hardware, like an American lunar module, and a Soviet Soyuz capsule.
And the mix of Russian and American is also present in more subtle ways too: in a planetarium show, an animated “James the Penguin and Vladimir the Bear” guide visitors through the night sky.
[Audio from planetarium show: “Vladimir, you’re a surprising bear!”]
I was keen to visit Cite de l’Espace because my family also sits in the middle of the Space Race.
My mom, who is Bulgarian, remembers watching the Apollo 11 moon landing as a kid on TV from behind the iron curtain. She says news about humanity’s achievement was broadcast in Bulgaria, but with an air of disinterested detachment. The adults she was watching the broadcast with knew better than to celebrate.
My dad, who is American, remembers watching the Apollo 11 moon landing at his home in Wisconsin: everyone around him was interested and, of course, openly excited.
From its vantage point in the middle, Cite de l’Espace has its own story to tell. The story of the Apollo landings is presented here with all the excitement of an American space museum, if a little less patriotic.
One obvious difference was the date: when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, it was 8:56pm Houston time on July 20th, 1969, but in France it was almost 4am on July 21st. There’s something charming about accounting for timezone changes on a place like the moon, but I wonder if that’s the reason why the museum’s Apollo Day is July 21st, when I have always learned the moonwalk began on July 20th.
Cite de l”Espace did not answer my request for comment, but the exhibit text says that French children were awoken in the middle of the night to watch the moonwalk. In the galley, footage of the moonwalk was interspersed with footage of people watching from all over the world, including Sydney, Australia and Paris, France.
In the gallery about the Apollo missions, I watched a museum presentation of earth-moon comparisons for children called Meeting Moon. The focus was on physics: a demonstration of what it would it would feel like to lift a heavy object on the earth and then the moon. But the presentation was rooted in the Apollo Project, referencing specific missions and even the experiences of individual astronauts.
The finale of the presentation was as feat of coordination by one of the child volunteers. They were strapped into a harness that simulated moon-like conditions, and were asked to erect an American flag in a hole in the carpeted lunar surface…
[Audio of room noise]
Which they finally managed to do.
[Audio of the room applauding]
The presenters noted that the United States was the only country to land humans on the moon so far.
[Audio from gallery]
I like the optimism of the “so far.”
Even if the next enterprise to land on the moon is American, the United States won’t be the only country there for too long. The museum has a temporary exhibit called “Moon, Episode II” (presumably Episode I was the Apollo missions), which presents some of the challenges, and proposes some solutions to going back to the moon. Each of the solutions presented did not rely on national agencies, but simply human ingenuity.
Cite de l’Espace is not designed for an American or Russian audience. Instead, the museum is the showcase of space achievements in general and French contributions to those achievements in particular. The biggest thing in the museum is an Ariane 5 rocket, a human-ready launch vehicle designed by the French Space Agency that accounts for 60% of global satellite launches. You can get a bite to eat at La Terrasse guanaise, a reference to French Guiana, an overseas department of France, where European rockets are launched because of the department’s proximity to the equator.
But while I was there, the museum was making its final preparations for Apollo Day: moving a lunar module to a special location in the middle of the open air part of the museum, all to get ready to celebrate not just an American achievement, but a human one.
One of the young visitors also curious about the preparations was wearing a tee shirt with Yuri Gagarin’s face on it. Gagarin, the first person in space, flew on a Soviet rocket only eight years before the moon landings. The modified version of that rocket is also on display not far away.
In a video in the Moon episode II gallery, the narrator notes that the boot prints around the Apollo 11 landing site are still there, untouched just as the astronauts left them, ready for humans to visit again.
Cite de l’Espace has nothing to say on the topic of a museum at the site of the landing — a project regular listeners know I want to help develop when the time comes.
I hope that future museum at the Apollo 11 landing site is a little like Cite de l’Espace. I hope that it doesn’t just feature the American story, but instead features the mix of countries presented here that lead to the achievement.
So, whether you celebrate on July 20th or 21st, I wish you a happy Apollo Day. This has been Museum Archipelago. [Outro]