Kansas Cosmosphere

One of the World's Largest Repositories of Space
Treasures Resides in a Small City in Kansas

Dan Leeth

            NASA should have known that a mission numbered 13 was bound for trouble.  And so it happened with Apollo XIII.

            This trip to land men on the moon launched April 11, 1970, and for two days, everything went peachy.  Then on the 13th, some 200,000 frequent-flyer miles from earth, an explosion ripped the spacecraft's life-sustaining service module.

            "Houston, we've had a problem," radioed Commander James Lovell.

            In NASA's most successful failure, the wounded spacecraft whipped around the moon with the crew of three sheltering in a lunar lander built for two.  They had air, but water and power stood in critically short supply.  The trio returned to the command module for re-entry, finally splashing down in the Pacific.  Their Hollywood-worthy survival tale can be seen in "Apollo 13," staring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton.

            And what about the actual spacecraft the astronauts rode to safety?  It can be seen in Kansas.

            The Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center stands in Hutchinson, a 40,000-inhabitant city northwest of Wichita.  Here, near the wheat fields from where Dorothy blew to Oz, lies the largest collection of American space treasures outside the Smithsonian and the largest collection of Russian space artifacts this side of Moscow.  Its linked galleries of its Hall of Space Museum launch visitors on a visual journey through the history of space travel.


            The 13th-century Chinese may have invented gunpowder-powered arrows, but it wasn't until the early 20th century that modern rocketry truly blasted off.  The Russians advanced theory, and America's Dr. Robert Goddard launched world's first liquid-fueled rocket, but it was World War II's Nazis who really fired things up. 

            Hanging in the German Gallery is an actual V-1 "buzz-bomb," so named because of the racket its pulse-jet engine produced.  To the side lies a V-2 rocket capable of carrying a one-ton warhead to England.  These missiles' channel-crossing trajectories took them 50 miles skyward, making V-2s the first earthly vehicles to penetrate space.

            At war's end, the U.S. and U.S.S.R each tried to capture as much German rocketry know-how as possible.  The Soviets got the engineers, and the Americans secured the scientists. 


            Passing opposing statues of Lenin and Uncle Sam, visitors advance to the Cold War Gallery.  Dominating the first part of the room is Glamorous Glennis, "The Right Stuff" movie replica of the Bell X-1 rocket plane that first broke the sound barrier in 1947.  Around the corner sits the rocket sled, Sonic Wind II, which tested the effects of rapid acceleration and deceleration.  Photos show a Superman-wannabe aboard the first Sonic Wind screaming faster than a speeding bullet.
While Americans advanced speed, the Soviets aimed upward.  In 1957, they launched earth's first satellite, Sputnik I.  A flight-ready backup of this radio-beeping ball hangs in the Cosmosphere.  Nearby stands an engineering model of Sputnik II, the Russian satellite that carried a dog into space a month after the first Sputnik.

            The first U.S. satellite attempt came at year's end.  Unlike the secretive Soviets, the Americans invited the world to witness the launch.  What people saw was a missile explode and its Vanguard satellite bounce into the bushes.  The Cosmosphere displays a flight-ready backup of the original.

            Running a lap behind in the space race, President Kennedy boldly announced in 1961 that Americans would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  It seemed a daring boast considering only 10 months earlier the country's first unmanned Mercury capsule blew to smithereens on launch.  A display case holds its mangled remains.


            It was the Russians who first launched a man into space on April 12, 1961.  A flown Vostok capsule, similar to the one in which Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth, stands in the Early Spaceflight Gallery.

            Across from it rests the Mercury capsule, Liberty Bell 7.  After splashing down in the Atlantic, charges prematurely blew the craft's hatch.  Astronaut Gus Grissom escaped, but the capsule sank deeper than the Titanic.  It was recovered in 1999 and restored by the Cosmosphere.

            An example of the Russian Voskhod spacecraft dominates the center of the gallery.  In 1964 Voskhod I carried three cosmonauts on world's first group space ride.  The following year on Voskhod II, Alexei Leonov took humankind's first space walk.  The unflown capsule on display contains a backup of the airlock he used.

            Near the far wall sits Gemini X, a flown example of America's two-man capsules.  This mid-'60s program had three missions.  It would prove humans could survive two weeks in space.  It would test rendezvous and docking maneuvers.  And finally, it would determine if two human males could stand being cramped together in quarters tighter than flying coach.


            In the next gallery visitors come face-to-face with the Apollo program, which landed men on the moon.  A scale model of the massive Saturn V moon rocket hangs from the ceiling.  With over three million parts, it represented the most complex machine ever made.

            The Cosmosphere holds one of only two remaining Apollo-era white rooms, the prelaunch cubicle through which astronauts entered the capsule.  Visitors can try to imagine what the men must have felt climbing onboard a skyscraper-tall tank of explosives and strapping themselves into a vehicle built by the lowest bidder.

Apollo 13            In a glass enclosure stands the actual Apollo XIII command module, the craft in which astronauts Lovell, Swigert and Haise landed after their "problem" in space.  It's hard to believe that this symbol of American ingenuity and perseverance sat for years on French soil.

            Considering the flight a failure, NASA stripped the command module of its 80,000 internal parts, returning some to manufacturers for testing and storing others.  The capsule shell ended up at a museum near Paris.  Realizing its iconic value, the Cosmosphere worked with government officials to repatriate the spacecraft and reinstalled its pulled parts. 

            "It's now probably the most complete of all of the original flown spacecraft," boasts Cosmosphere president Chris Orwoll.  "Virtually everything in there is from the actual Apollo XIII."

            The gallery also displays a lunar lander.  This one served as an NBC News backdrop allowing anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley to show what was happening as Neil Armstrong took that "one giant leap for mankind."  A piece of moon rock from the mission shines in a protected case nearby.

            With the cold war thawing in the mid-'70s, a spirit of cooperation began developing between the Soviets and Americans.  The Cosmosphere's final display shows the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous in space, the first shared step toward today's International Space Station.

PROGRAMSDr. Goddard's Lab

            More than a collection of artifacts, the Cosmosphere tries to educate and excite people about space exploration.  For many, that begins in Dr. Goddard's Lab where a museum employee demonstrates how rockets work.  School-age kids love when this modern lab-coated doctor blows things up.

            The Cosmosphere offers summer camps for students ranging from "Investigate Space" programs for second through fourth graders to Future Astronaut Training Programs for seventh graders and up.  Grownups get Adult Astronaut Adventures and Elderhostel programs.

            The museum also hosts public gatherings featuring authors and astronauts.  A landmark event will be coming next April when flight and ground crew from Apollo XIII arrive to celebrate the 40th anniversary of NASA's most successful failure.

            "We're working on the Hollywood folks, hoping to get them to come as well," relates Orwoll, "but that's a tougher nut to crack.

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Contact the Kansas Cosmosphere to learn more about visitng this space museum in America's heartland.


Article appeared in AAA Colorado's EnCompass magazine and the Dallas Morning News.