Grinnell banker launches, pilots Apollo 11 commemorative
By Michael McAllister
On Thursday, December 8, astronaut John Glenn died at the age of 95. Tributes to Glenn—the first American to orbit the earth and, 36 years later, the oldest human to venture into space—reminded Americans of the significance of that 1962 orbital flight by Friendship 7 amidst Cold War uncertainty and the blow to America’s ego struck in 1957 by the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik.
Eight years later, however, America triumphed when astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, and on the day following John Glenn’s death a movement to commemorate the moon landing took “one giant leap” forward when the United States Senate passed the Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Commemorative Coin Act.
The bill will authorize the U S Mint to strike a coin honoring the 50th anniversary of man’s ascension to the moon on July 20, 1969. As this article is being written, the bill is on its way to President Obama’s desk.
Mr. Mike Olson, Lincoln Savings Bank Vice President and Commercial Lender, Lt. Col. (Retired) of the Iowa Army National Guard, is pleased to say the least. He is the man who started it all.
Olson credits an uncle with inspiring him to explore the world of coins. His uncle collected, gave him some coins, and encouraged Olson to read and research. He also recalls his father taking him to coin collector club meetings. He projects an evangelical enthusiasm when he discusses collecting and notes that “If you collect coins, you’ll never go broke.”
A career in banking will of course keep one close to coins, but Olson has immersed himself far beyond the levels of most collectors. He was nominated for the Citizen Coinage Advisory Committee in 2009 by Congressman John Boehner, following a recommendation from Congressman Tom Latham. Appointment came from the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury. Olson was both the first banker and the first Iowan to take a seat on the committee, which exists, its website states, “to advise the Secretary of the Treasury on the themes and designs of all US coins and medals.”
The moon landing was a remarkable achievement, but the Act that permits its commemoration presented its own special difficulties. As a member of the CCAC, Olson made the proposal in 2014. It received unanimous approval from committee members then and again in 2015.
But the committee’s approval was only “one small step.” Olson worked with officials from several states especially connected to the Apollo 11 moon landing, and eventually H. R. 2726 was introduced by Representative Bill Posey, Republican, of Florida (above left). Iowa’s own Rod Blum, Republican, (above right) is also singled out by Olson as a key supporter and is listed as one of the original sponsors of the bill. Iowa played an all-important role on the moon landing, Olson notes, because radio communication between astronauts and Earth depended upon equipment produced by Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids.
Olson’s efforts on behalf of the bill have taken him to Washington D. C. several times, to Congressman Posey’s office, and, on one memorable occasion last month, to a Florida reunion of the Apollo and Gemini astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin. Olson describes the reunion as an event he will never forget. Understandably, those assembled showed strong interest in the commemorative act program.
Still, there was much to overcome and a limited time to work. No doubt the pressure of re-election in an unusually chaotic presidential campaign year kept many representatives occupied. In the case of H. R. 2726, 290 co-sponsors were necessary. House passage was achieved just one week ago, and the bill moved to the Senate.
Only 16 Senators were initially on board; however, three days later 54 more had signed on. Collectspace.com attributes the surge of interest in part to advocacy from the two remaining members of the moon-landing team, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, who wrote letters urging Congress to pass the Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Commemorative Coin Act, Aldrin reminding recipients that no other nation “has ever landed humans on the moon and returned them to Earth,” with Collins stressing the need to remember “what the lunar landings meant to this country.”
With the end of the year nearing, people behind the project such as Olson surely felt some of the trepidation experienced by the astronauts on the very flight that the coin will honor, for had the bill not been approved in the current congressional session, rules would have forced the bill to expire and driven commemorative efforts back to step one.
The United States Mint strikes coins that are both circulating and non-circulating. Designs are sometimes specified by the legislation behind the movement. At other times, staff artists draft designs, and contracted artists through the Mint’s Artistic Infusion Program might also be enlisted. If the coin is to circulate, Olson notes, certain wording is mandatory, such as “In God We Trust.”
With the Apollo 11 commemorative, legislation specifies the design on the reverse side of the coin as well as the shape of the coin. The Act states: “The design shall be a representation of a close-up of the famous ‘Buzz Aldren on the Moon’ photograph taken July 20, 1969, that shows just the visor and part of the helmet of astronaut Buzz Aldrin in which the visor has a mirrored finish and reflects the image of the United States flag and the lunar lander and the remainder of the helmet has a frosted finish.” The coin will also be slightly cupped.
The design on the face of the coin is yet to be determined. Olson reports that the Mint will initiate a design competition open to anyone in the United States, and he sees this move as a way of re-energizing interest in the space program. “We need to get back in the game,” he believes, and there are indications that events are trending in that direction.
“Right now we spend 60 million dollars to send one of our astronauts on a Soviet capsule to the space station we built.” He is hopeful that America can establish a reinvigorated program.
In a guest editorial posted to Coin Update in November 2014, Olson wrote eloquently about the significance of the Apollo 11 landing. “For centuries, man has gazed into the night sky, in awe of Earth’s mysterious companion, which appears so close but in reality is worlds away.” Yet Americans walked on that mysterious companion only eight years after the project was begun. “Now it is our responsibility,” he continues, “to ensure that current and future generations born after the Apollo program concluded in 1972 are fully versed in this American point of pride.”
While some may believe that the value of commemorative coins lies solely in the province of collectors, it extends much further. The purpose of commemoratives, aside from honoring the person, the event, or the place(s) depicted, is to generate money for worthy causes.
Once expenses are met, proceeds from the Apollo 11 Commemorative Coin Act and the sales the coins generate will go to the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, the Astronaut Memorial Foundation, and the Destination Moon exhibit at the Smithsonian. The scholarship fund directly benefits STEM programs and is dedicated to helping the United States maintain “its world leadership in science and technology,” the website reports.
No taxpayer dollars are involved in any Mint operation. In fact, the United States Mint is that rarest of entities—a federal government institution that employs people, produces goods, provides services, pays for itself, and profits to benefit designated programs.
Two coins thus far have been struck with a commemorative image of the landing: the reverse of the Eisenhower dollar, issued through most of the 1970s, and the reverse of the Susan B. Anthony dollar, minted from 1979 to 1981 and again in 1999. Both of these coins carried the image of an eagle with an olive branch landing on the moon with Earth in the background. (“The Eagle has landed,” said a confident Neil Armstrong as Apollo 11 touched down.)
But the Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Commemorative Coin Act will give the achievement the single billing it deserves. Coins will be struck in 2019.
What is next for Mike Olson? He is considering, once the Apollo 11 commemorative is assured, reviving a previous initiative, one that thus far has stalled—the recognition of Route 66. It, too, once represented a form of travel to new places—“that California trip”–a journey undertaken in many cases to satisfy yearnings, to seek now frontiers. This year is the 90th anniversary of the highway, and his initial proposal was timed for 2016, but commemoration would be appropriate anytime.
Coins are important, Olson comments, because history shows us that sometimes coins are among the last remaining artifacts of a civilization. “We need to be careful about what we make.” We need to seek “significant American events” that “future generations and civilizations will remember us by.”
No doubt most of us take coins for granted, but seeing those common objects through the eyes of an enthusiast can give us new appreciation and prompt us to think of them, as Olson does, as “pieces of history you can hold in your hand.”