Sunday, July 31, 2005
The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum on the Washington National Mall is the most-visited museum in the world, attracting nearly 10 million visitors a year (including me more than once). It brings some of the most significant artifacts in flight and space history together in one place: the Wright 1903 Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, the X-1 Glamourous Glennis in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, and the Apollo 11 command module Columbia. As you might expect, the museum has the world's largest collection of space artifacts.
But where is the world's second-largest space collection, including the Apollo 13 command module Odyssey? The answer is far from obvious, far from just about anywhere – the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas, 50 miles northwest of Wichita.
Located next to the Hutchinson Junior College football stadium is a world-class space museum and the world's premiere facility for restoring historic spacecraft. When the second manned Project Mercury capsule, Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7, was recovered from the ocean floor in 1999 thirty-eight years after it sank, it went to the Cosmosphere for restoration. The capsule went on tour starting in 2001, and will go on permanent display in Hutchinson next year. There is a Glamourous Glennis reproduction on display which the Cosmosphere made for the movie, The Right Stuff. Right now they are working on restoring a couple of Project Gemini capsules.
The most significant big items currently on display are Odyssey, the Gemini X capsule, a flown Soviet Vostok, the wreckage of unmanned Mercury capsule MA-1, an SR-71 spy plane looming over the lobby, and a Redstone rocket out front. There's also an huge assortment of other items, ranging from Saturn I engines to astronaut toiletry kits. The museum displays are very well done and contain an incredible amount of information. My only complaint is there was no detailed program or brochure available. If you wanted to know about a display, you had to read about it there. There is a Quicktime guided tour on the web site, but I don't know how good it is because my company laptop won't run it. I'll have to run it when I get home in two weeks.
I was really interested in the display of cameras used by the astronauts. Most of the cameras were fairly standard models. There was a Hasselblad 500EL with a 60mm lens that would be fun to borrow for the weekend, but that's probably out of the question since it came back from the Moon on Apollo 14. 'Blads have detachable film magazines, so the Moon walkers brought the film magazines back but to save weight left the camera bodies on the Moon, all except the one on display at the Cosmosphere.
The Cosmosphere began as the Hutchinson Planetarium in the poultry building at the state fairgrounds in 1962. See this link for the story on how it evolved into a world-class space museum and restoration facility. I remember that I first heard about the Kansas Cosmosphere when Liberty Bell 7 was recovered. I came across the name again when looking for something to do over the weekend and wondered, "How far is that from KC?" Turns out it's 215 miles, so I drove over on Sunday morning. If you include all the shows at the IMAX theater, the Planetarium, and Dr. Goddard's Lab you could probably fill up the entire day, but I had to drive back the same day so I just toured the museum. It gets only about three percent of the number of visitors as the museum in DC, but if some quirk of fate steers you through central Kansas someday, the Cosmosphere is definitely worth a stop.
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