Friday was our first full day in Hutchinson and we truly got to experience the city’s highs and lows. I also had an unexpectedly emotional experience that left me shaken for the rest of the day.
We began with a visit to the Cosmosphere. This is a planetarium, an IMAX theater, a space camp, and one of the premier space museums in the world. It’s affiliated with the Smithsonian and is home to the largest collection of Soviet space program artifacts in the country.
My education started before we even entered the museum. A sculpture of an astronaut about to climb a ladder is right outside and it looks like the astronaut is pointing up. Doug, Joanna’s father, informed me that’s actually how the gloves were designed to make it easier to push buttons. This caused me to notice the various designs as we walked through the museum, something I never would have noticed otherwise. Glove design is so important that NASA held a contest in 2009 that awarded $350,000 to two winners for their more flexible concepts.
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On the way to the museum I’d heard about the Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird. Made of 93% titanium, this was the first stealthy aircraft, but its arrival in Hutchinson was anything but. They “drove” it down North Plum and then built around it. Still the fastest plane ever built, this particular bird now hangs dormant just within the entrance.
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Once inside the actual museum the exhibits begin where the first major advances in rocketry began – in Nazi Germany. Lining the walls the story emerges as one of brutality, inhumanity and vengeance. Images of gaunt men in concentration camps are flanked by quotes from ranking officials about the expendable nature of their human workforce, and overhead are two examples of what they accomplished at this unimaginable cost: the V-1 and V-2 weapons. These two were the predecessors of the rockets that followed.
We were then led into the Cold War era and the race to the stars. The museum boasts a Sputnik I & II and a Redstone Nuclear Warhead (sans nuclear material), and outside towers a 109-foot Titan rocket in a flame bucket.
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At this point I was glad for the fresh air provided by this outdoors exhibit. Just before the Titan rocket pit was a large section of the Berlin Wall. I stared at it, not truly believing what was in front of me, until Joanna told me to touch it. As soon as my fingers met the concrete grief poured through me and tears streamed down my face. I was 19 years old when the wall fell; like most of my generation and before the Cold War defined my world view. When the wall came down and East and West Berlin were open to each other once again I was filled with the hope of clichés, anticipating a “new era of peace”.
Touching that wall brought back those emotions and memories in a flood. The dam had already sprung some leaks the day before and learning the human toll exacted at rocketry’s nascent beginnings had chipped away boulder-sized chunks. I felt pain and a sense of hopelessness at just what we’re capable of doing to each other.
Before going to the Cosmosphere I didn’t know that a piece of the wall was there. If I had I’m not sure it would have made much sense to me. “What’s that doing in a space museum?” I would have wondered. After seeing the context it fits; it ties the tragic beginnings and the race-to-the-death of mid-century, and it illustrates the nearly-unimaginable collaboration of Apollo-Soyuz during a time when a city itself was literally split in two.
Because the Cosmosphere is not just about the tragedies; it is also, and most importantly, about the successes and the possibilities. They have the actual Apollo XIII Command Module, the Liberty Bell 7, and a Gemini X. You can even stand in a genuine White Room – the platform the astronauts walked through to enter their spacecraft. We stood where astronauts stood before going to the Moon. As we exited the museum I was still affected but my spirits had been lifted as we learned to what heights man has soared.
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Before we left the building Doug took me up to see the Space Camp. He had an idea I’d get a kick out of that and he was right. While I tend to be more Artist than Scientist, I’ve always been fairly middle-brained and it’s something my lesser-used hemisphere would love. Plus the creative side, the risk-taking side, thrives on the adrenaline rush. Earlier this year I flew with the Lima Lima team and we pulled 4 G’s, so when I saw “4G Centrifuge” I said “I’ve done that!”
Why is the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, you may be wondering. So many people have asked that same question they actually have literature answering it. A woman by the name of Patricia Brooks Carey put a used star projector and a bunch of folding chairs in the Poultry Building of the Kansas State Fairgrounds and started one of the first public planetariums. This was in 1962 at the height of the race so it quickly found favor with the residents and it continued to grow. By the mid-70’s it was in the perfect position to take on artifacts from the completed Apollo program and in 1980 the Kansas Cosmosphere and Discovery Center was officially launched, complete with a museum, the original planetarium, and one of the first OMNIMAX theaters.
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We walked out of the building into bright sunlight and I inhaled deeply and wiped away a few remaining tears. What I had thought would be a fun, lighthearted experience had actually been something unexpected and profoundly moving.
Welcome to Hutchinson!