Splashdown in Kansas

I’M STANDING OUTSIDE AN ANGULAR WHITE BUILDING IN Hutchinson, Kansas, flanked by two
towering rockets. Inside is one of the world’s greatest museums, the Cosmosphere. An
affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, it is the second-largest repository of space
artifacts in the world. Passing the space-suit sculpture at the door, I enter to meet
Marketing Director Karen Siebert. An hour’s tour later, I’m too dazzled to say much more
than, “This is one heck of a place.” “A common response we get is, ‘All this is here?'”
Siebert chuckles. “You don’t expect a major space museum with thousands of artifacts to be
in the middle of Kansas.” Visitors — hundreds of thousands a year — come to Hutchinson
from all over the world to see Russian and U.S. rockets, space capsules, the space shuttle,
the fabled SR-71 Blackbird (fastest plane ever made and still flyable at age 40) and the
world’s largest international collection of space suits. For those who think a museum is
just a museum, here is a small sampling of what the Cosmosphere offers, all of it
spic-and-span and perfectly restored: the largest collection of Russian space artifacts in
the Western world; the beautifully restored Apollo 13 command module Odyssey; the world’s
largest collection of space suits; the flight jacket Chuck Yeager wore when he broke the
sound barrier in 1947 in the Bell X-1 (an X-1 is also on display); German V-1 and V-2
rockets; and a full set of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. The entire lobby is taken
up by the huge Blackbird and a full-size mockup of the space shuttle. At 15 feet wide, 10
feet high and 60 feet long, the shuttle’s huge cargo bay could easily accommodate a
motorhome. Make no mistake, the Cosmosphere is a big place. By no means were these
priceless artifacts easily acquired. Consider the command module Odyssey from the aborted
Apollo mission, literally marooned in space on the moon’s far side when an on-board
emergency threatened the crew with death. The world watched the drama unfold on television
and prayed for the astronauts to return safely. “Apollo 13 was the focus of the most
suspense-filled mission in the history of manned spaceflight,”says Siebert. “It was called
NASA’s ‘successful failure,’ but far more people think of it as an example of courage,
resourcefulness and daring.”That it made it back to Earth at all was due solely to the
genius of the astronauts flying it. The Cosmosphere has existed only since 1980. For the
previous 18 years, the facility was the Hutchinson Planetarium. Farsighted officials
realized that such a designation was old hat; to really attract tourists, they needed
something more in keeping with the times. Chief Executive Officer Max Ary decided that a
museum of space would be just the thing. It made sense. Whatever may have been its ultimate
aims, the Russian-U.S. space race afforded mankind one of its most exciting eras. What
better way to keep those remarkable adventures alive than to assemble an enormous
collection of space artifacts? Bringing together such treasures as a flown space suit, a
replica of Sputnik and a flown Vostok space capsule would be the perfect way to recall 30
years of intense competition between the two superpowers. The concept led to a 12-year
restoration program for Odyssey and a hunt for its components. With more than 80,000 pieces
scattered around the world from Texas to Kentucky to France, the command module was many
needles in many haystacks and required plenty of detective work. Assembly took almost 1,000
hours and was not completed until late 1997, 27 years after splashdown. But Ary’s goal was
not just American space equipment. He wanted to gather as many Soviet artifacts as
possible, too. Naysayers were quick to point out that the two nations were enemies, that
Russia would never allow any equipment to leave the country. Unwilling to settle for that
gloomy view, Cosmosphere officials went to Russia, made friends, explained their vision —
and today, visitors to the plains of Kansas near Wichita can stroll down corridors lined
with U.S. rockets on one side and Soviet machines on the other. Germany is also represented
by a giant V-2, the rocket that truly began the Space Age. The Cosmosphere’s paintings,
photos and artifacts — including a complete mockup of the moon landing — tell the story
of that age better than any other museum in the world can. Said Ary at one point, “I keep
thinking there’s got to be a giant junkyard somewhere in the Soviet Union with all these
re-entry vehicles there. It would be incredible to have them all!” Cosmosphere officials
didn’t find a giant junkyard, but they’ve since acquired a sterling collection of rocketry,
the largest anywhere, and one has only to see the fascination and amazement on visitors’
faces to realize what a triumph that is. “To use an old cliche,”says Siebert, “we were in
the right place at the right time. There’s a story behind every artifact in the collection
that’s as fascinating as the artifact itself.” One such story concerns Liberty Bell 7, in
which Gus Grissom became the second American in space, following John Glenn. At splashdown
on July 21, 1961, Grissom barely escaped as the craft sank in 16,000 feet of water —
deeper than the Titanic. There it would remain until 1978. Technology simply wasn’t
available to find and raise the spacecraft, but Ary refused to give up his dream. In 1986
he joined forces with deep-sea salvage expert Curt Newport and numerous scientists and
engineers. Volumes of research — tides, corrosion of the vehicle and a multitude of other
variables — was required before the actual raising even if they could find the capsule.
Once again, the project was deemed too costly and too iffy, and it was shelved. Only after
the Discovery Channel funded a salvage expedition in 1999 was Liberty Bell 7 finally
raised, not without mishaps. All of them are revealed in the Discovery Channel’s fine film,
In Search of Liberty Bell 7. Returned to Port Canaveral, Florida, the capsule then was
shipped to Hutchinson, where it was flushed with water for six months, and all its 25,000
parts were removed, cleaned and put back together. Such meticulous attention to detail has
made the Cosmosphere the world’s premier space-artifact restorer. With more than 100
successes to its credit, it’s the worldwide leader in a unique science, which it pioneered
two decades ago. Today, the fully restored Liberty Bell 7 is on a three-year tour of the
nation. After that, it will take an honored and permanent place at the Kansas facility. The
Cosmosphere isn’t just housing the finest collection of space artifacts in the world.
Progressive planning has produced several programs, one of the most fascinating of which is
the Elderhostel Astronaut Program, a weeklong course for people 55 and over. It includes
building and launching paper rockets, studying astronomy and astronaut training. As a
legitimate geezer myself, I was keen to see this program in action, but they had just
completed a cycle, and another wasn’t due for two weeks. The next best thing was suggested:
meeting some of the seniors who had undergone realistic astronaut training, no doubt
inspired by 76-year-old John Glenn’s return to space. The Space Team was led by 71-year-old
Kansas farmer Bill Bidleman, who flies his own Cessna. “I’ve always been a big fan of the
Cosmosphere,”he said. “When this program was started, I wanted to be one of the first. I
was also here when they delivered the SR-71 Blackbird.” Other team members were 62-year-old
teacher Jean White, 55-year-old seed grower John Krueger, retired research chemist John
Skinner, 77, and his wife Frances, 76. Each paid $495 for the privilege of being whirled in
a centrifuge and taught rocketry. “The entire program has been absolutely amazing!” Frances
said. Education has become a prime focus at the Cosmosphere with middle- and high-school
students taking part in Future Astronaut courses. Trips to the Johnson Space Center in
Houston, Texas, are included, along with Elderhostel programs, Discovery workshops, updates
on the International Space Station and special Boy and Girl Scout programs. Add an Imax
dome theater, planetarium shows and a replica of Dr. Robert Goddard’s laboratory (in 1926
he established the principles of modern rocketry), and you get an idea, but only an idea.
To take in the real deal, you need to travel to Hutchinson. But see if you can locate some
nice dark space glasses first, because you’re going to be dazzled.

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