Artist Gary Cooper of Belfast used a 3D sculpting computer program to create the winning design for the commemorative coin that will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — The coin designed by a Belfast sculptor to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing has just won the international 2021 Coin of the Year award.

Gary Cooper, whose lifelong dream was to design a coin for the U.S. Mint, said that it was a big surprise to learn that the coin had won the competition. Three years ago, his sculpted design of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s footprint in the lunar dust was selected by Mint officials to be on the obverse side of the special coin, which was released in 2019.

“I think it’s really special,” he said of the award. “Maybe it’s because I wasn’t just designing a coin and sending it in and seeing what happened. I really had a lot of emotional interest. I remember exactly where I was the day the astronauts landed on the moon. My father bought me a telescope, and the neighborhood kids and I were trying to find the manned module that was going around the moon … It was a wonderful thing, and I remember it quite fondly.”

Artist Gary Cooper of Belfast submitted the winning design for this commemorative coin, which marks the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission. “My artistic intention was to transform a black and white image into a sculptural form that expresses a shared sense that we were all present on that momentous occasion,” he said of his design of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon.

The commemorative coin was the first in the United States to be made with a curved design. The reverse, or convex, of the coin features a representation of a close-up of a famous photo taken on July 20, 1969, that shows part of astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s helmet. In the helmet’s reflection, you can see Armstrong, the U.S. flag and the lunar lander “Eagle.” It was designed by a sculptor-engraver who works at the mint.

The Mint used the designs for a $5 gold coin, a standard-size $1 silver coin, a half dollar clad coin and a 5-ounce, heavier-than-usual $1 silver proof coin.

The Coin of the Year program, which is in its 38th year and is run by World Coin News, is aimed at recognizing outstanding coin design and innovation around the world. The 2021 program honors coins from 2019 in 10 competition categories, and the 5-ounce silver Apollo coin won awards for best contemporary event and best silver coin, as well as the overall Coin of the Year.

“Our team was proud to be a part of commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first manned landing of the moon by NASA’s Apollo 11 crew,” a U.S. Mint official said. “The [silver coin] … represented a special achievement in the Mint’s technical capabilities.”

A surcharge on the commemorative coin series, Cooper said, benefited the Astronauts Memorial Foundation, the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation and other related organizations.

And even though he was the designer, he still had to buy his own coins just like anyone else.

“It’s pretty funny,” Cooper said. “That’s the government for you.”

He’s also not sure if he’ll be invited to go to the awards ceremony later this month. In typical years it’s held in Berlin, Germany, and attended by the artist, the engravers and representatives of the Mint. This year, it will be held virtually, and because of that format, it’s possible organizers will need to limit the number of people involved. But it’s been gratifying to see the coin win international accolades, he said, and great to commemorate the space program and moon landing in this way.

“The 1960s space program is an ideal example of how this country can really do something when they’re fully committed to it,” he said. “Personally, I think we’ve done enough for space programs. We need to just turn around and figure out how to conserve the big blue marble, and when the time’s right, go back to space exploration.”