As the 17th century’s most famous Italian astronomer surveyed the heavens, he likely never dreamed a rocket shooting fire would one day power people up among the stars he eyed through his telescope, or that his work would help guide a ship to the moon.
But Galileo Galilei’s observations would become a key link in the chain of scientific research and discovery fundamental to our understanding of the universe and our drive to explore it.
That scientific continuum is at the heart of a new Houghton Library exhibit connecting early celestial calculations to the Apollo 11 mission that put two American astronauts on the lunar surface 50 years ago this July. “Small Steps, Giant Leaps: Apollo 11 at Fifty” features gems from Harvard’s collection of rare books and manuscripts as well as NASA artifacts from an anonymous lender and Harvard alumnus, many of which were aboard the spaceship that left Earth’s orbit in 1969.
“The show gives you a picture of what happened in 1969 but it also connects those historic events to the scientific tradition that stretches back several centuries,” said John Overholt, the library’s curator of early books and manuscripts. “That kind of context is very much what Houghton’s mission is all about.”
Eight glass-topped cases in the building’s first-floor Edison & Newman Room contain material from Houghton’s collection, including a number of treasures directly related to the Apollo flight and about a dozen “real classics in physics and astronomy,” said Overholt, who curated the new show.