Today, my first Saturday in Kansas, I visited the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson. The facility houses the largest collection of Russian space artifacts outside of Moscow, and the second largest collection of space artifacts in the world, second only to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.. It is one of only three museums to display flown spacecraft from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.
I arrived after 11:00AM. I spent some time outside looking at the Mercury-Redstone and Titan-II rockets and an example of the mighty F-1 engine. The F-1 engine did not have the nozzle extension, so the vents for the turbopump were visible. Counter-intuitively, the exhaust from the massive turbopump was pumped along the inside of the exhaust bell for cooling; the turbopump exhaust was much cooler than the 3,200°C hot gas exiting the engine combustion chamber.
Hanging inside the entrance was the incredible SR-71 Blackbird. The SR-71 spy plane first flew in 1964 and even at its retirement in 1998 was an unparalleled technological achievement. It was capable of Mach 3.3 (3,529 km/h) and flew at 85,069 feet (25,929 m) using two very innovative Pratt & Whitney J58 engines, which were a combination turbojet and a fan-assisted ramjet. Only 32 of these fascinating planes were built.
I bought tickets to see everything at the Cosmosphere: ‘Dr. Goddard’s Lab’, the planetarium, IMAX, and of course the museum itself.
I rushed to the ‘Dr. Goddard’s Lab’ first, as the next demonstration started soon after I arrived. The host of ‘Dr. Goddard’s Lab’ demonstrated principles of rocketry. The demos involved liquid oxygen, hydrogen and explosions. It was more for kids, but hey, who doesn’t like explosions?
After the Lab, I grabbed a slice of pizza in the café and then plunged back into the museum. There was so much to see.
After the IMAX, I went back to continue my museum visit. There were restored German V-1 and V-2 rockets, flight-ready Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2, a Vanguard satellite, a inert Redstone nuclear warhead, and a mock-up of the Bell X-1 (first plane to break the sound barrier) from the movie The Right Stuff. There were full-size mock-ups of the Viking landers and two Mars rovers (Sojourner (1997) and Spirit (2003)). One exhibit had a row of the original Mission Control computers from Johnson Space Center. The actual systems on display were used by the flight surgeon for Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and Space Shuttle missions.
After the Planetarium, I continued through the rest of the museum. In one corner was a full-size engineering test structure of an Apollo Lunar Module (LM) and a lunar rover. The LM was built by Grumman for testing during the Apollo program, and contains many flight-ready components. When I saw the LM hanging from the ceiling at Kennedy Space Center, it was mounted too far up to allow me to really connect with the vehicle. Being able to stand next to the LM footpad, you get a much more intimate relationship with the towering Lunar Module (17.9 ft (5.5 m) tall).
There were both a flown (but unmanned) Soviet Vostok capsule and a mock-up of the Voskhod 2 capsule, complete with an inflatable airlock for the first spacewalk. At the end of the Apollo Gallery was an Apollo Command Service Module and a Soyuz from the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.
Smaller items included Soviet space suits and equipment, cameras (Hasselblads), unused Apollo food items, the Apollo 12 DSKY, tools, the Sonic Wind II rocket sled, parts of satellites, a set of Soviet RD-170 rocket engines, and other memorabilia.
For the American space program, the two jewels of the collection were the notorious Liberty Bell 7 capsule and the Apollo 13 Command Module.
The Liberty Bell 7 (Project Mercury) was the second American manned space flight, launching Gus Grissom on a sub-orbital flight in July 1961. After landing in the Atlantic Ocean, the explosive hatch blew open. The capsule filled with water and was lost. Gus Grissom almost died too, as he had removed his helmet upon landing and his suit also filled with water. Research after the flight indicates that it would have been nearly impossible for him to blow the hatch without sustaining an injury to his hand. But at the time, some had blamed Grissom for the incident.
Sadly, the Liberty Bell 7 incident led to a design change that removed the explosive hatches in future American spacecraft. When Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were testing the Apollo 1 capsule on January 17, 1967, a fire started in the high pressure pure-oxygen environment. The three astronauts perished partly as a result of the non-explosive hatch which could not be opened quickly.
The Liberty Bell 7 was located on the bottom of the Atlantic and was lifted back to the surface in 1999. It was partially restored by the Cosmosphere and put on display.
Everyone is familiar with the story of Apollo 13. It was a thrill to see the actual Command Module. The three Apollo 13 astronauts had one of the most amazing rescues in history in that tiny vessel (well, they stayed in the LM during the lunar slingshot phase). Jim Lovell’s space suit was also on display. It was the one he would have worn had the mission accomplished the lunar landing.
One of the two Apollo white rooms is also at the Cosmosphere; the other one is at Kennedy Space Center. There is also a mock-up of the LM ascent stage, with plexiglass sides for people to look in. I spent a few minutes staring at the interior of the small craft, imagining what it would have been like to live in the LM for 1 to 3 days while on the surface of the moon. The interior is only the size of a closet. That little space was used by the two astronauts for preparing for the EVAs, eating meals, sleeping and using the washroom :().
The collection also includes the Gemini X module, which was flown by John Young and Michael Collins, both of whom later flew Apollo missions. The larger Gemini spacecraft had two-person crews (Mercury supported one person, and Apollo supported three). The Gemini program explored longer duration missions and docking procedures that were needed for the Apollo lunar orbit rendezvous.
Last were the Space Shuttle artefacts. A mock-up of the washroom, a tire, tiles, tools, food and many other items were on display. The tire was neat – I was surprised by the thickness of the sidewall. Another neat item was a set of the frangible nuts that were used to hold down the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters before they fire. There are four on each booster, and they are all that is holding the entire 4.46 million pound (2,027 tonne) vehicle to the mobile launcher platform. The nuts are explosively cut at T=0 (lift-off).
After more than 6 hours at the Cosmosphere, it was time to leave. On my long drive back to Overland Park, I stopped to take pictures of the Kansas countryside. I stumbled upon a cemetery surrounded by American flags. It was Memorial Day weekend. It was a nice, quiet spot to watch the sunset.
I arrived back at the hotel around 10:30pm, exhausted. But I was so happy to see such an amazing collection at the Cosmosphere.