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Capturing the Columbia: the iconic Apollo 11 command module in 3D

It’s been nearly 50 years since the Apollo 11 command module Columbia played its crucial role in “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” The capsule carried the Apollo 11 crew on their mission to the Moon in July of 1969. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the Moon.

The Columbia was the living quarters for the three-person crew and the only part of the Apollo spacecraft to return to Earth. After the splashdown and recovery of the astronauts, the Columbia was lifted by a crane onto the recovery ship and moved to a quarantine facility. The ship sailed to Pearl Harbor, from which the Columbia was airlifted to NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas (now called the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center). After a NASA-sponsored tour of the 50 U.S. capitals in 1971, the capsule was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, where it has been on display in the Milestones of Flight entrance hall at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum since its opening in 1976.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, the capsule has left the hall for the first time since 1976 and is going on another tour of U.S. cities, while the Smithsonian prepares its new “Destination Moon” exhibit, which is scheduled to open in 2020.

In advance of that tour, the Smithsonian took advantage of the capsule’s ‘downtime’ to digitally capture its interior and exterior using a combination of laser scanning and photogrammetry technology. The Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office worked with Autodesk to capture thousands of individual scans of the capsule’s interior and exterior and then integrated all of those scans to create an extremely detailed model of the capsule, which is available on the Smithsonian X 3D website.


Digitization program

The goal of the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office is to make its large collection, research, and educational resources accessible to the public. The museum has 30 million visitors a year, but less than 1 percent of its collection is on display, so the museum would like to digitally display the other 99 percent of the collection.

However, the museum currently has approximately 137 million objects, artworks, and specimens. Capturing this entire collection at a rate of 1 item per minute would take over 260 years, so the Smithsonian explored faster digitization workflows. Objects already digitized can be viewed online at the Smithsonian X 3D website and downloaded for use with modeling programs or 3D printers.








The capture process

The Columbia has many reflective surfaces, and the interior dashboards have many detailed components—situations that pose challenges for reality capture technology. In addition, the scanning team wasn’t allowed to climb inside or even touch the module, and the only access into the module was a single hatch. But inside the capsule, there are nooks and crannies that are not visible from the hatch and therefore the scanning equipment used outside the capsule had no line of sight to some of the interior areas.

A variety of equipment worth more than $1.5 million was used to capture the Columbia. The team used laser scanners and several types of structured light photogrammetry scanners. These remotely controlled LIDAR scanners were mounted to mechanical arms that could reach inside the capsule. The team captured approximately 7 terabytes of data over a two-week period. Scans were registered through Autodesk® ReCap™ reality capture software and converted to a mesh model with ReMake.

The team produced a 3D model, animations, virtual-reality panoramas, and a browser-based viewing platform, enabling the Smithsonian to showcase interactive exhibits of the command module.

The model and platform allow anyone with an internet connection to explore and examine the capsule—including its interior, which formerly could only be viewed in person. The Smithsonian has also made data files of the model available for download so it can be 3D printed or viewed with virtual reality goggles. The model will also be included in the new “Destination Moon” exhibit.




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