On October 11 at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, the designs of the 2019 Apollo 11 50th anniversary commemorative coins were unveiled with considerable fanfare by the U.S. Mint’s Director David Ryder and officials from the space community.
The designs — an obverse showing Neil Armstrong’s boot print as he made his first steps on the lunar surface, and a reverse based on the famous photo of Buzz Aldrin on the moon that features his helmet visor with a reflection of Neil Armstrong, the U.S. flag, and the lunar module — were received enthusiastically by those in attendance.
The launching of these designs took place more than four years after the idea of an Apollo 11 commemorative program was first proposed by Michael Olson, then a member of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee in February 2014.
Numerous world coins, beginning in 1969 with coins from Guinea and Fujairah — respectively African and Gulf nations — have honored the moon landing, continuing to the present when many nations are issuing coins marking the 50th anniversary.
Yet the moon landing has oddly never had the single billing on U.S. coinage it deserves, an imbalance Mr. Olson believed had to be corrected. Until now the event was only alluded to on the reverses of the Dwight Eisenhower and Susan B. Anthony dollars with an image of an eagle landing on the moon.
Director Ryder noted in his remarks at the design launch that since 1982 (when commemorative coins began to be issued again after a long hiatus), $506 million has been raised through the sale of those coins, which went to help fund museums, historic sites, and other important programs. He said that if the 2019 Apollo 11 coins are a complete sellout, they could raise $14.5 million.
Half of the funds raised (after all costs are first recouped) will help fund “Destination Moon,” a traveling exhibit of the National Air and Space Museum that celebrates the Apollo 11 mission and those that preceded, concluding in 2022 with a permanent gallery at the museum. The remaining funds will be split between the Astronauts Memorial Foundation and the Astronauts Scholarship Foundation.
As most coin collectors are aware, the 2019 Apollo 11 coins will each be curved with a concave obverse and convex reverse — only the second series of U.S. coins issued in this shape, after the 2014 Baseball Hall of Fame coins — and include: A clad half dollar with a mintage limit of 750,000 coins; a $1 silver coin with a mintage limit of 400,000 coins; a five-ounce, three-inch diameter $1 silver Proof coin with a limit of 100,000 coins; and a $5 gold coin with a 50,000-mintage limit.
In addition, there will also be a previously unannounced special two-coin half dollar set with the Apollo 11 half dollar and one Kennedy enhanced reverse Proof half dollar unique to the set, celebrating the connection between President John F. Kennedy and the U.S. space program. Only 100,000 of these sets will be made, and there will be a household limit of five sets.
The five-ounce piece will only be issued in Proof, while the other three coins will be issued with Proof and Uncirculated finishes. This will be the first-ever five-ounce Proof and the first curved coin of that size and with a reeded edge. Director Ryder predicted that it could sell out in five minutes on January 24 — the day the coins go on sale.
Because of the high level of interest in the space program among coin collectors and in the general population, reflected for example in the popularity of films such as First Man that debuted the day after the design launch — and the relative novelty of curved U.S. coins — these pieces are expected to be extremely popular. They are also expected to inject a welcome dose of enthusiasm into modern U.S. numismatics.
The design unveiling was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of another important space milestone, the Apollo 7 mission — the first with a manned crew of three astronauts sent into space on October 11, 1968. One of those astronauts, Walt Cunningham, who flew with Wally Schirra and Donn Eisele, was guest speaker at the design unveiling.
During his presentation, Mr. Cunnigham noted:
This coin celebrates the work of 400,000 Americans in what President Kennedy called ‘the most hazardous, dangerous and greatest adventure’ in which we have ever embarked. I hope that people who purchase this coin will be reminded of our achievements and the sacrifices that we were willing to make — and some people did make — in service to our country and to history.
Also in attendance were members of the space community and individuals who were instrumental in creation of the coin program, including: Ellen Stofan, director of the Air and Space Museum, Gabe Sherman, deputy chief of staff of NASA, several representatives of the Astronauts Memorial Foundation, including Thad Altman, its president and board members Sheryl Chaffe, daughter of astronaut Roger Chaffe, and Kathy Scobee Fulgham, daughter of astronaut Dick Scobee, Tammy Sudler, president of the Astronauts Scholarship Foundation, and Michael Olson, former Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee member and a member of the AMF’s board of directors.
Thomas Uram, a CCAC member and president of the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists, who served on the juried panel of three members from the CCAC and three from the Commission on Fine Arts that selected the winning obverse design, was also present — as was Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) — who introduced the legislation for the coin program, and his former legislative fellow Dieter Jobe, now a Pentagon official.
Two daughters of Alan Shepard, the first American to travel in space, were also at the event, and said they were grateful for the efforts of members of the numismatic press to publicize the Apollo 11 coin legislation and build public support for it. That support, as AMF’s Thad Altman said, was crucial in getting the legislation for the coins through Congress.
Olson Proposal Becomes Reality
Mr. Olson, a lifelong coin collector who was six in 1969, first proposed the idea of issuing these coins back in February 2014 while serving on the CCAC. The moon landing had a profound impact on him, as reflected in what he wrote on November 24, 2014, in Coin Update, saying:
Now is the time to act to ensure that the greatest achievement in the history of the United States, and some could argue in the history of mankind, is commemorated in a manner befitting its magnitude by the country that against all odds and at great risk and expense accomplished this historic feat.
His Apollo 11-coin proposal received unanimous support from the CCAC in 2014 and again in 2015. But that was just the beginning of a process that would take until December 10, 2016, for the legislation to be passed. It was signed into law (Public Law 114-282) on December 16 by President Obama.
To get there, Mr. Olson and Dieter Jobe, then a legislative fellow on the staff of Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), who introduced the House bill on these coins, worked with state officials and members of Congress — as well as astronauts, engineers, and others — to build support for the legislation, focusing on the specific contributions of each state and district in the Apollo 11 mission.
Mr. Olson said after the October 11 event:
Not many thought we would be able to see this mission to completion, even after we were able to get a bill introduced in the House in 2015, but an incredible team of people from many backgrounds got it done. It absolutely needed to get done, because these astronauts, civilian workers, and our country deserved this recognition.
This experience has been rewarding as I’ve had the privilege of working with Congress, astronauts, families, and other members of the space community, and it led to my recent appointment to the Astronauts Memorial Foundation board where I’ll be able to continue with this involvement.
I don’t think it’s been mentioned before so I want to recognize some journalists for helping to get the word out many times when we needed constituent support in the House and Senate. Specifically, Louis Golino, David Harper, and Robert Pearlman (of CollectSPACE) were there whenever an article was needed at a critical juncture to keep the dream alive and the process moving. They deserve much credit for our success.
I encourage everyone to be ready to purchase these coins when they become available in January. They will surely be in great demand, and a sellout would be a great way to honor this anniversary.
Reverse and Obverse Coin Designs
The enabling legislation for these coins specified that the convex reverse must feature a representation of a close-up of the famous “Buzz Aldrin on the Moon” photograph taken July 20, 1969, that shows just the visor and part of the helmet of astronaut Buzz Aldrin. The reflection in Buzz Aldrin’s helmet includes astronaut Neil Armstrong, the United States flag, and the lunar module. Inscriptions include UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, the denomination, and E PLURIBUS UNUM.
This design was created and engraved by U.S. Mint artist Phoebe Hemphill. On the coin, the visor will have a mirrored finish, while the design elements on it will be frosted.
The concave obverse design, which appears on each coin, features the inscriptions MERCURY, GEMINI, and APOLLO, separated by phases of the Moon — and a footprint of Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface — which together represent the efforts of the United States space program leading up to the first manned Moon landing. Additional inscriptions include 2019, IN GOD WE TRUST, and LIBERTY. Joseph Menna engraved this design.
French coins from 2009 for the 40th anniversary of the moon landing also used the footprint, but in a much smaller, less defined form superimposed on a background of the moon’s surface, rather than as depicted on the new coin with details that give the impression of the footprint going into the lunar surface — a more dynamic view.
The design for the obverse was selected through a two-phase U.S. Mint design competition, and the winning design was created by Gary Cooper. Mr. Cooper is a 66-year old medallic artist and sculptor from Maine. In addition to designing coins, medals, and plaques, he also has a deep interest in numismatics that began as a child in 1963. He has made several efforts at designing U.S. coins, beginning in 1998 when he proposed a flying eagle design for the reverse of the Sacagawea dollar.
As the designer of the obverse of the 2019 Apollo 11 50th anniversary commemorative coins, a high-profile release, his impact on modern U.S. numismatics is assured. During the design unveiling, Director Ryder said:
His winning design is a poignant representation of the triumphant moment that brought people together and reaffirmed our shared humanity and sense of purpose.
The version of his design that was selected is a slightly modified version that was requested after his original design was submitted and caught the interest of the competition’s judges. In the version that will appear on the coin, the footprint is rotated slightly to the right, rather than appearing more vertically. The positioning of the inscriptions was also changed.
Interview with Gary Cooper
Louis Golino: What is your artistic background?
Gary Cooper: I have been an artist my entire life. When in high school I created my first plaster model of a medal for a 1970 exhibition in Arezzo, Italy. I graduated in 1974 with a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts in Graphic & Industrial Design from Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, Missouri.
My professional career has been as a graphic designer and art director in consumer products manufacturing. This entailed product design and retail packaging design and graphics and printed collateral materials.
In the 1990s, I became very interested in 3-D graphics software with a particular emphasis in its sculptural possibilities. My first 3-D sculpt was in 1998: a concept for the reverse of the golden dollar coin.
LG: What are some of your other projects?
GC: I’ve had the most pleasure working with Maine veterans who served in Vietnam, Korea, and WWII, and Maine women veterans to design and sculpt four bronze plaques in the Maine State House Hall of Flags. In 2006, I designed Maine’s new Honorable Service Medal.
I also participated in U.S. Mint design competitions for the Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative, “Dad’s Baseball Glove” (2013) and the World War I centennial commemorative dollar, “Corporal Alvin C. York,” and “Armistice Peace Flying Eagle” (2016).
LG: I noticed you paid homage to space missions that preceded Apollo 11 in your design. Can you tell me a little about your interest in the space program and what the moon landing meant for you?
GC: I was nine-years-old when the first American went into space and remember watching on TV many of the launches and recoveries of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo program missions. For myself, the NASA space program provided inspiration and a model for the great works and accomplishments that are possible within a nation when united in support of a grand and ambitious mission.
The legend, • MERCURY • GEMINI • APOLLO •, commemorates the collective results of each phase of the three NASA programs in a methodological process in achieving the lunar mission’s ultimate goal. The phases of the moon elements are an allegory to that linear building process.
LG: What led you to create a design based on the famous footprint on the lunar surface?
GC: I devoted most of my design development time drawing the footprint as though the viewer were standing directly above it, with the details in deep shadow areas made visible. The first lunar landing in 1969 was the greatest technological feat, but it was so much more than that. It was actually a sociological event. In the minds of many, including myself, the iconic image of the moon footprint evoked the sense of heroic achievement accomplished by all of humanity.
Initial reaction to the designs from collectors — based on online comments — was somewhat mixed, with greater enthusiasm for the obverse, though one collector called the reverse design “pure genius.” These views likely reflect the fact that line art drawings generally do not look as good as finished products. Several collectors also lamented the fact that the year “1969” does not appear as an inscription and suggested a “1969-2019” dual date, or a reference to “50th anniversary” would have been appropriate.
Louis Golino is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer specializing primarily in modern U.S. and world coins. His work has appeared in Coin World, CoinWeek, The Numismatist, Numismatic News, and COINage, among other publications. His first coin-writing position was with Coin Update.
In 2015, his CoinWeek.com column, “The Coin Analyst,” received an award from the Numismatic Literary Guild for best website column. By 2017, he received an NLG award for best article in a non-numismatic publication with his “Liberty Centennial Designs,” which was published in Elemetal Direct.