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Founded five decades ago by a Kansas woman with a love for the night skies, Cosmosphere has grown to become one of the finest space museums in the world.
'Only the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., has a larger space collection,' said Jim Remar, president and chief operating officer of Cosmosphere. 'We have more than 10,000 artifacts and get 100,000 visitors a year.'
Cosmosphere owes its existence to Patty Carey, a civic leader in Hutchinson, Kan. Hoping to introduce others to the wonders that fascinated her, she bought a used starball projector in 1962 and set it up in a poultry building on the Kansas State Fair Grounds. Four years later, Hutchinson Community College offered the planetarium a home on its campus, and a new, expanded science center was built.
During the next decades, Carey and a dedicated group of volunteers worked to make the center worthy of international recognition. Their timing was fortuitous, for during this time there were many space artifacts needing a permanent home.
'After the end of the Apollo program in the late 1970s, one of the board members for the new science center heard that NASA was looking to dispose of their space artifacts,' said Remar. 'Once they were no longer useful, NASA didn't know what to do with them. And when the Soviet space program was looking to get rid of old and outdated materials in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we got many artifacts from them, too. The Soviet economy was crumbling and we bought a lot of valuable artifacts at good prices. Because of that, we have the largest collection of Russian space artifacts outside of Moscow.'
After passing through a lobby that includes a SR-71A Blackbird and T-38 Talon planes, Cosmosphere visitors enter the Hall of Space Museum. Exhibits there trace the history of space travel, beginning with rocket experiments done during World War I and continuing through the Cold War, the building of the International Space Station, and the growing commercial space industry.
The displays make it clear that space exploration has always been intertwined with political events. For example, the launching of Sputnik (the first artificial Earth satellite) by the Russians in 1957 was an enormous blow to American pride and launched a space race that continued for decades.
During the Cold War, rocket launches and astronaut achievements had great propaganda value for both countries. It is only in more recent decades that space exploration has become more of a collaborative, international enterprise.
The museum's most significant artifacts include a 109-foot Titan rocket, a Russian Vostok spacecraft, the Liberty Bell 7 Mercury capsule, and the Apollo 13 command module Odyssey. The human-side of space exploration is honored here, too, from 'moon diapers' worn by astronauts to personal reminiscences by space program veterans.
'Astronauts have been enthusiastic supporters of our efforts here,' Remar said. 'They've donated personal items to our collections and also enjoy coming here to give presentations about their experiences.'
After touring the museum, visitors can attend a show in the Justice Planetarium, a facility that is far more sophisticated than the one installed in the chicken building five decades before. Shows include 'The Secret Lives of Stars,' narrated by Patrick Stewart, and 'The Amazing Telescope,' an exploration of an essential tool for learning about space.
After touring the museum, young visitors will enjoy a live science show in Dr. Goddard's Lab. Named after the inventor of modern rocketry, the show demonstrates scientific concepts with verve and humor. Afterwards, budding scientists can watch a film in the Carey Digital Dome Theater, which shows nature and science-related movies.
The museum is in the midst of a five-year revitalization that will make it even more interactive and experiential.
'The concepts taught here are an important part of any education, regardless of what students want to do for a career,' Remar said. 'Our exhibits are also of interest to adults who lived through the eras represented. We think they'll learn something as they tour Cosmosphere, too.'
Cosmosphere has achieved the international reputation dreamed of by its founder. In 1998 it was named one of the first affiliates of the Smithsonian Institution, and through that connection has a close relationship with the National Air and Space Museum. Its staff has also helped Hollywood bring to life the story of space exploration. The spacecraft and hardware used in the Tom Hanks' film Apollo 13, for example, were manufactured here.
Cosmosphere offers many multi-day educational programs, including camps for students from second grade through high school. The camp sequence is sequential, allowing students to return year after year. Scientific concepts are taught through activities that include spacecraft simulators, robotics programming and building rockets.
For adults who've always dreamed of going into space, Cosmosphere offers a three-day 'Train Like an Astronaut' camp. Participants can pilot a spacecraft simulator, train in a 4-G centrifuge and stress simulator, and build and launch their own rockets.
Intergenerational programs are offered as well through the Road Scholar program. Camps for grandparents and grandchildren allow side-by-side learning and fun.
'That's one of the staff's favorite programs,' Remar said. 'It's such a joy to watch the interactions between generations. They're creating lifetime memories, as well as learning about space exploration and scientific concepts. Looking at them, I often think of how pleased Patty Carey would be if she could see what's grown from her projector in a chicken house.'
If you go
What: Cosmosphere, 1100 N. Plum St., in Hutchinson, Kan.
Hours: Open daily
Admission: $26 for adults; $17 for children
Details: Call 1-(800) 397-0330 or go to www.cosmo.org