This world-class facility in Hutchinson reveals the wonders of space exploration and is home to priceless artifacts from the “space race.”
By Bill Montfort, F216177
Imagine Kansas and you may think of rolling plains, vast oceans of wheat waving in the breeze, and perhaps Dorothy, Toto, and Auntie Em. But a space museum? Indeed, this is not just any space museum, but one of world-class quality and, in many respects, unlike any other.
The Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson is a 105,000-square-foot facility that is crammed with one-of-a-kind space and flight artifacts. It is a designated affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum and known as the home of space artifact restoration.
You’ll form two very distinct impressions as you visit the Cosmosphere. One is the tremendous scope and mission of the museum as an educational resource; the second is how easily superlatives roll off the tongue while within these walls. Whether they pertain to a collection, an item, or a display, phrases such as “the only,” “the largest,” and “the original” become commonplace.
Your first step into the museum will cause you to look skyward. Hanging above, yet within touching distance, is the once ultra-secret spy plane, the SR-71 Blackbird. This 30-ton beast zipped along at three times the speed of sound. It was used for photo surveillance at heights, speeds, and in airspace that no other Allied plane dared to go. Spy satellites have put the SR-71 out to pasture, but it still is an awesome sight. Looming behind it is a full-scale replica of the space shuttle Endeavour. Across from the shuttle is a full-size reproduction of a lunar module from the Apollo program, set in a beautiful diorama. Above and behind the shuttle is an original Northrop T-38 Talon, a high-performance plane astronauts flew to keep their skills sharp. It’s so fast that it was often referred to as the “astronaut’s taxicab.” Amid these craft are other fascinating flight and space artifacts. And you haven’t yet paid your admission fee.
The Cosmosphere is renowned for being home to all of these items and more. Yet perhaps one object stands out as a crown jewel of the annals of space exploration, a clear measurement of the facility’s prestige as a museum of American history. Visitors can see the actual Odyssey command module of the Apollo 13, the vehicle in which the crew returned to earth after their ill-fated mission to the moon. The Odyssey brings back memories for those old enough to remember the tension and anguish that the mission evoked. A whole new generation learned about this celestial drama through Tom Hanks’ Academy Award-winning movie Apollo 13. The command module rests in the most simple of settings and is a moving sight to see.
A second object associated with the museum became well-known twice. It is Lt. Col. Virgil “Gus” Grissom’s capsule, Liberty Bell 7. Grissom, one of the seven original American astronauts, was the second American launched into space as part of the Mercury space program. On July 21, 1961, after a 15-minute suborbital flight, Grissom’s capsule touched down in the Atlantic Ocean approximately 300 miles east of Cape Canaveral, Florida. Somehow the explosive release bolts on the capsule’s hatch deployed before a flotation collar could be attached. The capsule began to flood and Grissom barely had time to scramble out. Liberty Bell 7 was tethered to a helicopter, but the weight of the added seawater was too much to hold. The capsule sank, disappearing in 16,000 feet of water.
Grissom went on to serve as the commander of the Gemini 3, which he nicknamed “Molly Brown.” When the Apollo missions began, Grissom was commander of the Apollo I. Tragically, on January 27, 1967, Grissom, along with Lt. Col. Edward White and Lt. Roger Chaffee, died in a fire that broke out during tests of the spacecraft.
The Liberty Bell 7capsule continued to lie at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, and some people refused to forget it. Representatives from the Cosmosphere, the Discovery Channel cable TV network, and an underwater salvage expert named Curt Newport began working together to find it. Their combined determination proved fruitful. On July 21, 1999, 38 years after it sank and 30 years after the first man walked on the moon, Liberty Bell 7 was recovered from the ocean and returned to Port Canaveral. The saga of the capsule’s return was the subject of a Discovery Channel television special.
Liberty Bell 7 was promptly taken to the Cosmosphere, which houses the only permanent space artifact restoration facility in the world. More than 100 major restoration and replication projects have been carried out by Cosmosphere craftsmen. Experts at the Cosmosphere’s shop built 80 percent of the props for the movie Apollo 13. They also consulted and built sets and props for Tom Hanks’ HBO miniseries From The Earth To The Moon. Their expertise is sought by museums around the world.
Not surprisingly, Liberty Bell 7 was not in good condition after it was pulled from the ocean, and posed a real challenge for the restoration team. Museum visitors could observe the restoration process, which was not unlike watching a piece of history come to life. After six months of disassembling, cleaning, and reassembling nearly 25,000 pieces that survived the crash, and fabricating parts that were destroyed by corrosion. Liberty Bell 7 was complete again. Unfortunately, the capsule is not currently at the museum. It is part of a Discovery Channel-sponsored national touring exhibit. Once the tour is completed, Liberty Bell 7 will be returned to the Cosmosphere and put on permanent display.
So how did this splendid facility land in Hutchinson? It began with the vision of a local woman, Patty Carey, and her dream to create Kansas’ first public planetarium. The Hutchinson Planetarium was founded in 1962 and was once housed in an unused corner of the poultry building at the Kansas State Fairgrounds. Mrs. Carey helped the facility grow and evolve into its present-day excellence.
If museum founder Patty Carey supplied the vision, its recent president and CEO, Max Ary, supplied the drive and determination needed to help Hutchinson become home to rare space relics. For example, Mr. Ary was told that Russia would never share historic items from its space program. But the truth was, no one else had ever asked for them. He did, and the rest is, literally, history. The Cosmosphere boasts one of the most comprehensive international space artifact collections in the world.
The Cosmosphere is divided into four visitor areas: the Hall of Space Museum, the Carey IMAX Dome Theater, the Justice Planetarium Theater, and Dr. Goddard’s Lab.
The Hall of Space Museum is the centerpiece of the facility and home to many exhibits. The museum is divided into four galleries — the U.S. and Soviet Gallery, the German Gallery, the Cold War Gallery, and the Apollo Gallery.
The U.S. and Soviet Gallery documents the space race by showing the development of both programs side by side: Mercury and Vostok, Gemini and Voskhod, and Apollo and Soyuz. A flown Vostok space capsule, space suits used on Russian missions, and a flight-ready Sputnik are available for viewing. When you look at the Vostok space capsule, you cannot help but think of it as a Rube Goldberg device and ask yourself, “This thing actually went into space?”
The Hall of Space Museum also includes the largest collection of space suits to be found anywhere. From the crude beginnings of the space race to today’s technologies, they are beautifully chronicled and explained to visitors.
The German Gallery demonstrates how Hitler’s Germany laid the groundwork for future space exploration. Visitors stand in awe in front of real (and rare) V-1 and V-2 rockets. Such devices rained horror upon the people of London and were in mass production until the final days of World War II. These particular examples were almost lost to a bulldozer’s blade when an old warehouse in Huntsville, Alabama, was slated for demolition. Fortunately, the machine’s operator looked through a dusty window and spotted the missiles. Within 24 hours, Max Ary was contacted and on the scene.
The tour continues past man’s first attempts to break the sound barrier; early rocketry efforts; aborted and spectacular U.S. launch failures; Russian space exploration successes. The Cold War Gallery reveals the first steps of both U.S. and Russian space programs. Here, an interesting bit of history surfaces. The Russians were clearly in the lead in the space race, having placed the first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in 1957. Americans’ national pride was suffering badly, not to mention our political standing with the international community. So, President Dwight D. Eisenhower accelerated the country’s rocket program, and the United States used a type of rocket already in use — the Redstone — to propel the United States’ first satellite, Explorer I, into orbit in 1958. So, although badly trailing the Russians, we had finally left the starting line.
The Apollo Gallery, which opened in the summer of 2001, follows the dramatic story of man’s attempts to reach the moon, and includes the aforementioned Odyssey command module, as well as a lunar module, a lunar rover, and a model of the Saturn V rocket.
One of only two remaining original Apollo White Rooms is included in this exhibit. The White Room was the last place astronauts entered before they climbed into the capsule; there, they checked their space suits one last time and were given a final “Godspeed.” After they entered the capsule, the White Room, which was suspended at the end of a movable arm atop a tower, was moved away from the rocket. Liftoff was imminent.
The Apollo Gallery also contains the largest collection of historic space photography equipment in the world. These are the cameras that took the first photos from a spaceship “”images that made world history.
Also found in the gallery is the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project space docking exhibit, as is the original Viking Mars Lander and the Mariner 10 interplanetary probe.
RVers who possess that special sense of adventure will want to note that the Cosmosphere offers an Elderhostel Astronaut Training Program for men and women age 55 or older. FMCA members who will be in Hutchinson to attend the association’s 68th premier international motorhome extravaganza October 1, 2, and 3 may wish to consider participating. The weeklong adventure includes training in an F-101 flight simulator and culminates in a flying mission in the facility’s own space shuttle simulator. This program will be offered just prior to the FMCA extravaganza, September 22 through 27, and afterward, too, from October 6 through 11. Programs for other age groups are also offered at various times of the year. Contact the Cosmosphere for fees and more information.
The Cosmosphere’s huge IMAX Dome Theater will be showing two films at the time of the FMCA extravaganza: Space Station and Straight Up! Helicopters In Action. The Justice Planetarium Theater will offer a look at the stars in programs titled “The Night Sky “”Live!” and “Discovering Mars.” And Dr. Goddard’s Lab offers a daily live rocket science show that teaches how rocketry works via live (and explosive) demonstrations.
Whether you are a casual visitor or a serious student, the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center is a fascinating place. For those of us who lived through the space race, it offers an opportunity to step back in time and relive those dramatic moments when man took his first awkward steps into space; when we all held our breath as we followed countdowns broadcast on radio and television; and when our chests swelled with pride as those fragile pieces of machinery and the daring men inside them were rocketed into history. It is all here at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center.
Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center
1100 N. Plum St.
Hutchinson, KS 67501-1499
The entry fee includes admission to the Hall of Space Museum, viewing one IMAX film, attending one Planetarium show, and visiting Dr. Goddard’s Lab. Admission is $11 for adults, $10.50 for seniors age 60 and up, $8 for children ages 4 to 12, and free for children age 3 and under. Those who would like to attend additional IMAX movies or planetarium shows pay $3 extra.
A special rate is available to groups of 15 or more; you must contact the Cosmosphere in advance to schedule a group visit.
Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the museum is open from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from noon to 9:00 p.m. Sunday. Between Labor Day and Memorial Day, hours are 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 6:00 p.m. Sunday.
RV parking is available. The entire facility is wheelchair-accessible. Cameras are welcome.