For an Apollo enthusiast: this is Heaven. If I've learned anything at all from over 35 years of visiting space museums, it's this: wonderful things are often found in very surprising places. South central Kansas, an area best know for vast plains of grains, is home to what might be the single best private space museum I've seen! Founded by visionary Dr. Max Ary, (who unfortunately is having some legal troubles as of 2005), KSCS is a huge and dramatically presented space collection.
You know you're in for a serious space geek treat when the Last Man on the Moon greets you at the entrance. Apollo 17 Commander, Captain Eugene Cernan, USN (Ret.), is immortalized in a life-sized bronze sculpture and plaque, standing at the foot of the Lunar Module ladder. His words of dedication and challenge for the future are inscribed in full. This richly detailed artwork captures the bittersweet moment beautifully.
Hard to imagine things getting more dramatic 10 feet inside the front door - but they do. As you enter the Center proper, one of the most ultra-cool, record-setting, historically significant jets in the world is in a steep dive right over your head! It's the SR-71 Blackbird - a strategic reconaissance aircraft that still holds speed and altitude records for a jet-powered plane. Apparently the Cosmosphere was able to secure one from the U.S. Air Force, then had to construct the building around it. "Habu" means black cobra; it is what Okinawans called the sleek jet when it was flying from Kadena Air Base, Japan, back in the 1970s-80s.
If that's not enough, the Cosmosphere has a full-sized Space Shuttle Endeavor replica sitting right next to the Blackbird, and a NASA T-38 "Astronaut Taxi" in a steep bank directly overhead! You're overwhelmed and out of breath by the time you reach the ticket counter... but don't forget to check out the famous "Moonwatch," the Omega Speedmaster Professional - one worn by Al Shepard, and one a giant wall clock.
KCSC is the world class leader in spacecraft restoration. There are really no other choices! Both Apollo 13 Command Module Odyssey and Mercury-Redstone 4 Liberty Bell 7, each having survived lengthy ordeals (a near disasterous mission followed by neglect; and being on the sea floor for 38 years, respectively) were brought back to life by the Cosmosphere's incredible craftsmen. You can see the guys at work live, and via webcam.
Anyone who has never heard of Apollo 13 couldn't possibly be reading this page! Since the popular 1995 film, many millions of people have a grander appreciation for what flying to the Moon was all about - and for the unrivaled team who made it a reality. KSCS built the incredibly realistic movie set Apollo spacecraft used in the film, and features many of the movie props (suits, cameras, hatches, documents) in a separate gallery right next to the Lunar Outpost cafe. Then, you descend the stairs into the Apollo Gallery, and get to come face-to-face with the real thing. Odyssey (CM-109) looks like most other flown Moonships - a dull brown cone, stripped of the old shiny mylar skin - but she's the prettiest for having been completely restored inside and out.
KCSC's basement is just plain overflowing with Moon gear. A large diarama and surrounding exhibits host a full-sized Lunar Module (LM) - the Grumman factory mock-up used in NBC network television coverage, plus a LM ascent stage structural assembly.
Alongside the LM are portions of the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments package (ALSEP). This was an automated science station, operated remotely from Mission Control, and used to study the lunar environment in all parts of the spectrum. ALSEP contained a Central Station (far left) which provided the uplink to Earth (note the antenna); and one of NASA's more famous power supplies: the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) - a small nuclear reactor (near left) - with the black metal cooling fins. The Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) or Rover was a 462 lb electrically-powered dune buggy carried on the final three "J" series long range lunar missions. It remains famous as the only automobile ever built by Boeing Aerospace Corporation.
Boeing's legacy companies, North American and Rockwell, built the exceptional spacecraft that we called Apollo. A full-sized Command & Service Module replica helps recreate the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project - the first truly international space mission - between the former Soviet Union and the United States.
The Apollo Gallery of pressure garments is unequalled in my experience - I've never seen so many actual Moonsuits in one place before. These images above show the basic A7L in moonwalk mode, as worn by the Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) of the Apollo 11-14 crews; and the improved A7LB, as worn by the Commanders (denoted by red striping) of Apollos 15-17. The connectors and hoses on the front of the suits provided oxygen inlets & outlets, liquid cooling, and electrical power from the Portable Life Support System (PLSS) backpack. The display also features Apollo 14's unique Modularized Equipment Transport (MET), a wheeled tool and sample cart which rode the first Goodyear tires on the Moon. And the gift shop will even sell you a pretty nice costume (far right), autographed by Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan, should you want one to take home.
Even more impressive are the flown or flight ready/backup suits worn by several famous astros (left to right above): Michael Collins A-11 CMP; Ron Evans A-17 CMP, and James Lovell A-13 CDR. Collins had the good fortune to be on the first landing crew, but will always be the "third crewman" in the minds of many, since he didn't get to go the last 60 miles. Navy Captain Ronald E. Evans (1930-1991) was native Kansan, and a hometown boy is always a draw when your space museum is in the Sunflower State. And of course, anytime you see Jim Lovell's moonsuit - which never got dirty with moondust - sitting right next to his last command, Odyssey; you can't help but feel great sympathy for the only man who flew there twice without getting to walk on its surface. Finally, here's that always asked-about component of the suit: the Urine Transfer Collection Assembly (UTCA) OR "piddle pack." This allowed the astro to relieve his bladder while making use of every valuable hour on the lunar surface. Of course, he still had the less-than-pleasant chore of emptying it once he got back inside the Lunar Module. One exhibit (above far right) is overflowing with Apollo and SkyLab gear - too many clothes, tools, and accessories to count.
Other goodies include a back-up LRV TV camera, and a television award: Apollo 10's Emmy for unique and original programming live from lunar orbit!
It's not all about the spaceships. The Cosmosphere team realizes it took thousands of people on the ground to get to the Moon, and the collection contains several major pieces that symbolize that huge effort. Here is an actual Pad 39 Apollo White Room, the small weatherproof access which snugged right up to the spacecraft hatch, and was the work location of famed Pad Leader Gunter Wendt. Herr Wendt has even autographed this large relic (right) - it was sobering to stand near the large pressure gauge in the Pad Leader's office, and think of how many crews he tucked into various spacecraft over the years. Even more impressive was thinking how many pressure-gloved hands grabbed this same over-the-door bar I'm holding (center), prior to pulling themselves into a Moonship.
And of course, the pinnacle of Apollo operations was Mission Control. This is an acutal Flight Surgeon's console from the original control room (right). I'm completely unqualified to even sit here.
I have to give Kennedy Space Center's Saturn V Center top marks when it comes to best space lunch. In Florida, you can eat right underneath a lunar module (LM 9). But in Kansas, you can finish off your visit with a tasty Apollo Cheeseburger, with a nice squeeze bottle of Dr. Pepper.
The Cosmosphere is a world class space museum in a somewhat unexpected place. If you're an Apollo fan within 1000 miles of Kansas, you just gotta go!