- R.I.P. Lou Reed -
In 1962 in the small Kansas town of Hutchinson, a big thinking gal by the name of Patricia Carey rounded up a used star machine and some rented chairs to set up a planetarium in a corner of the poultry barn at the Kansas State Fair. Fifty years later, the resulting Kansas Cosmosphere is an astounding world class space museum boasting the largest collection of Russian space artifacts outside Moscow and the second largest collection of space artifacts in the world. In the middle of the Kansas prairie!
As we drove toward the museum Monday morning, I went directly from excited to giddy upon spying the nose cone of a Titan rocket in the distance. Unfortunately for Mark, that fervor is only now beginning to dissipate.
Seeing as how I'm planning to build a spaceship in my own back yard, I was bound to experience the Cosmosphere as a veritable Candy Land of cognition - shapes, colors, textures, materials, structure. I went prepared to absorb all those inspirations and more, but what I didn't expect was the incredible lesson in history I received in the process. The museum dedicates a good bit of space and explanation to the earliest stage of rocket development: Hitler's push to produce weapons capable of traveling long distances. The Cosmosphere is home to the only surviving specimens of both of Hitler's prestigious rocket programs (the V-1 and V-2) which were used by the Nazis to bomb the smithereens out of London and surrounding areas.
Turns out after the Nazis were defeated, both Russia and the U.S. swooped into war-ravaged Germany and scooped up all the scientists and technology that had been assembled to produce the fearsome V-1 and V-2 missiles. The U.S. relocated a huge team of scientists to the New Mexico desert (White Sands) to jump start our weapons program, while the Russians were more brazen in their approach with Stalin orchestrating the literal kidnapping of a group of over 20,000 people and piles of equipment and records, relocated them to various outposts across Russia to focus all efforts on advancing the Russian rocket program ahead of all competitors. Add a Kruschev and a Kennedy, stir gently, then pour into a tall frosty glass for a delicious Cold War.
Oh my...I just realized I'm really starting to geek out about rockets here. Back on task: the Cosmosphere is one of those rare museums that does a marvelous job of helping you put different things together in a new way and achieve a much deeper level of understanding. This level of insight requires extensive label reading mind you, but the Cosmosphere cleverly balances copious amounts of wall mounted information with the skillful exhibition of relics of such great magnitude that you can't believe you're seeing them. A good example: the command module of the ill-fated Apollo 13 flight of Tom Hanks movie fame. The Cosmosphere is responsible for having retrieved the various components of this module, which were languishing in various warehouses around the U.S., and then meticulously restoring and reassembling them into their original form. The museum also led the retrieval and restoration efforts for the Mercury program Liberty Bell 7 module, which flew the second manned space flight in U.S. history. The Liberty Bell 7 was lost to the deep dark waters of the Atlantic Ocean shortly after landing because of a problem with the explosive hatch. Astronaut Gus Grissom was very nearly dragged to the bottom of the ocean with the sinking capsule, but was fortunately plucked from the choppy seas just as his suit became swamped with water and he was losing the battle to keep his head above the waves. Very thrilling!
One of the things I appreciated most about the Cosmosphere is their emphasis on collecting and detailing Russian space program artifacts. There are numerous museums here in the U.S. that proudly display the ephemera from our participation in the space race, but recognition of the importance and magnitude of the Russian efforts is rare in my experience.
If you take a step back from it all, it's easy to see that really, the Russians have surpassed us in almost every endeavor to reach outer space and yet you hear very little discussion of their accomplishments in this area. Since I pay attention to such a thing, I was thrilled to see a plethora of Soviet relics such as personal items and a space suit belonging to Yuri Gargarin (the first man in space) and one of the ORIGINAL Sputnik I satellites! I particularly liked the diorama of Laika the space dog floating along on her Major Tom Space Odyssey mission as the first terrestrial animal to orbit the planet (under the watchful eye of Dwight Eisenhower no less!).
Another piece of Soviet space chutzpah that I really loved discovering is the Luna II sphere, manufactured by the Russians for use in an extraterrestrial pissing match. I'll let the museum's wall label tell the story:
"In a move that was sheer propaganda, the Soviets placed a stainless steel sphere (identical to the one pictured below) aboard the Luna II spacecraft. The sphere was covered with medallions stamped with the emblem of the Soviet Union and the year 1959. When Luna II impacted the Moon, the sphere was ejected, scattering the medallions across the lunar surface. It was the Soviet version of a calling card, announcing to all who followed that the Soviet Union had been the first to the Moon."
The sphere that lives at the Cosmosphere is one of only five that were made. The first two were launched toward the Moon, with the second one impacting the lunar surface. One has disappeared, leaving two which are both in the U.S.: one at the Cosmosphere and a second one at the Eisenhower Presidential Library.
I could obviously go on at length on these empyreal topics, but I think it's time to quit wearing out readers who aren't quite as fond of outer space revelry as I am. Just one more picture and then I'm done:
|Coolest gazebo EVER.|
Mark had to literally tear me away from the Cosmosphere. I could have spent a lot more time there, but quite honestly I was exhausted from drinking in new information and marveling. It was definitely time to leave. We took to the road and headed toward Kansas City, diverting from Highway 50 when we saw the sign for the Kansas Learning Center for Health in Halstead. I was on a mission to view Valeda, the transparent talking woman, dramatically ensconced on a revolving pedestal, spreading knowledge of female anatomy to the adoring masses.
I remember visiting the Houston Museum of Natural Science when I was a young girl and being mesmerized by the transparent people and gigantic interactive organ models that were on display. I was eager to see a surviving model of what was at the time (late 60s) a genuine modern marvel.
The tiny but admirable Kansas Learning Center for Health has diligently maintained their model (named Valeda) in an era where such things are usually sent to storage because they're considered outdated and arcane. Mark and I were the only visitors when we arrived (they had to turn on the displays for us) so we were able to get really close to Valeda as her informative narrative unspooled. She was surprisingly relevant and entertaining in the age of Industrial Light and Magic and the internet.
Outside the auditorium, we encountered a nicely executed set of gigantic models representing the 5 senses. They had been recently installed and were not only cleverly designed but also colorfully beautiful.
I looked up to realize that Mark had taken to scrubbing Sheriff Tuffy Tooth for amusement, and as such interpreted it as a signal that it was time for us to get underway again.
We decided to stop for gas on the outskirts of Emporia, Kansas but when Mark turned the key to resume our journey, the Caddie had other ideas. Houston, we had a problem. Long story short, the fuel pump picked the Flying J outside of Emporia as the ideal place to crater. Which actually turned out to be a good choice of location. We quickly found a really nice fellow Wesley that towed us to a garage and dropped us at a nearby hotel where we could spend the night. All went very well, considering the disruption and frustration of dealing with such a thing. The only fly in the ointment was where to eat at 8:00 on a Monday night in the middle of temperate nowhere. We sussed up our options (after determining the local dive bar was closed) and decided the least traumatic choice to be a nearby Chinese buffet. The food wasn't wretched, exactly, but it wasn't much more than nutritious. The reason I mention it at all was there was an item on the hot table that made my list of the top 5 grossest things I've ever seen on a buffet. It might even have overtaken the number 1 or number 2 spot! Hard boiled egg halves that had been left out long enough to develop a strange leathery yellow exterior. Oh well! At least our meal was notable!
So here we sit, in Emporia Kansas. The mechanic should have us back on our way by evening, but until then, we have to create adventure the old fashioned way - chance! I think a walk to the Emporia bowling alley may well be in order.