Museum in Kansas takes up a lot of space
By Amy Shafer
HUTCHINSON, Kan. -- A moon rock. The only Soviet Vostok spacecraft in the Western world. The Apollo 13 command module, Odyssey. An SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.
These are among hundreds of items -- from a piece of Dentyne gum flown on the Apollo-Soyuz mission to the gloves Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin used to touch the moon -- at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center.
It's a world-class museum, a repository for important artifacts from the nation's space program, and an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution -- and it's located in a town of 40,000 on the Kansas plains, an hour's drive from Wichita.
The Cosmosphere traces its roots to a local planetarium, built in the 1960s. A space expert who'd once worked there, Max Ary, happened to be serving on a Smithsonian committee to find homes for artifacts released after the Apollo program ended, when the planetarium board asked whether he had any ideas for a museum.
Under Ary's direction, the Kansas Cosmosphere was launched in 1980, and that local planetarium was transformed into a nationally recognized space museum.
In addition to viewing objects on display in the Hall of Space Museum, guests can also take in a planetarium show, an IMAX movie, and a trip to Dr. Goddard's Lab, where an instructor performs experiments and provides an introduction to rocket science, designed for all ages. A T-shirt in the gift shop even says: "Actually, I am a rocket scientist."
The Cosmosphere also restores spacecraft, and visitors can catch a glimpse of that work being conducted in the Hall of Space Museum.
Space exploration began, as the museum's exhibits explain it, with Germany's rocket program during World War II. Displays include a set of German production documents along with a V-2 rocket -- the first long-range ballistic missile to be used in combat, launched by the Nazis in 1942 -- that was restored at the Cosmosphere.
"We try to wrap every piece in some kind of historical, sociological context," said Jeff Ollenburger, president and chief executive of the Cosmosphere.
In the Cold War gallery, the museum even has sections from the wall that separated East and West Germany at the towns of Boeckwitz (East) and Zicherie (West). There are also examples of early U.S. and Soviet spacecraft, including Vostok and Mercury spacecraft.
The Odyssey is displayed so that visitors can walk around it and appreciate the damage done to the heat shield of the Apollo 13 command module. The spacecraft carried the mission's three astronauts safely to Earth after an oxygen tank exploded while en route to the moon. The incident was depicted in the 1995 movie "Apollo 13," for which the Cosmosphere helped build props. A video of the film runs continuously as part of the exhibit.
The museum also has a temporary exhibit dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the final moon mission in 1972.
That's where the moon rock is displayed, along with one of Ollenburger's favorite items: the cuff checklist worn by Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon.
The cheat sheet, which was literally affixed to the cuff of his spacesuit, contains the last words ever spoken on the moon: "We leave as we came, and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind."
Another set of Cernan's words are displayed near the IMAX theater.
"Some of the most exciting space education going on in this country is not coming out of Washington or New York or California, or even Texas," he said. "It's coming from a place in Kansas called the Cosmosphere."