When a space museum names itself the Cosmosphere, no one should be startled to find it contains the largest collection of Russian space program and cosmonaut artifacts outside of Moscow. What is surprising is that the collection is in the USA, far from mainstream space tourism hubs in Florida, Houston, Alabama, even Washington DC. It's in Kansas, in the relatively modest-sized city of Hutchinson.
And while the Space Race is long over, the cache and appeal of this collection has risen. Americans don't "go to bed by the light of a Communist moon" (as then-U.S. senator Lyndon Johnson famously fretted), and look -- we made it to the moon first and even ended up with a lot of the cool Russky space stuff! But the Cosmosphere doesn't gloat like some military museum with a Hitler trash can head -- the displays respectfully present the trials and triumphs of both space superpowers. It's more of a spirited rivalry, like sports teams from neighboring farm towns, not a panicky rush to orbit spy satellites and bombs overhead.
Why is the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson? No rockets were launched here, no astronauts were born here, no satellites crashed downtown. The Cosmosphere is here because the Smithsonian jettisoned a lot of its space artifacts in the late 1970s, and Hutchinson said, "We'll take them!" The bulk of the collection ends circa 1975 (although a life-size Space Shuttle model has been wedged over the lobby), which only means that the Cosmosphere has nothing but the Right Stuff.
The Museum opens with a nod to jet propulsion's pioneers, the Nazis, displaying genuine V1 and V2 rockets along with a map that shows where hundreds of these self-propelled bombs crashed into England. Then it's on to the Cold War, with a replica Bell X-1 rocket plane, a "supersonic torture chair" Sonic Wind II rocket sled, and a Redstone missile atomic warhead. A statue of JFK grins from a rocking chair at a fist-shaking Khrushchev atop a real section of the Berlin Wall. "Touch it!" commanded one camera-toting mom to her child. "Touch a part of history!"
We walk past the Soviet Sputnik and American Explorer backup satellites (the real ones burned up), an exhibit on Laika the dog ("first living creature to orbit the earth"), and the couch on which Enos the astrochimp rode into space. A door to the outside allows visitors to climb a gantry around a Titan rocket and explore its flame pit. Back inside, one sees the fickle power of these missiles in the shattered hulk of Mercury 4, America's first (unmanned) space capsule, whose rocket blew up less than a minute after launch.
The Soviet space artifacts are sprinkled throughout. An exhibit on the SK-1 space suit, used by Yuri Gagarin (the first man into space), notes that its pockets held a pistol, a knife, a radio, and shark repellent. The Russian letters CCCP were added to his helmet at the last minute "to prevent him from being mistaken as an invading American when he landed." A Vostok and Voskhod capsule -- the industrial boiler equivalents of America's Mercury and Apollo spacecraft -- are displayed next to a "tragic heroes" exhibit of unlucky Russian space pioneers such as Grigori Nelyubov, who spoke too plainly at press conferences, was kicked out of the Cosmonaut Corps, and died when he was hit by a train while drunk.
Speaking of unlucky space pioneers, Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 capsule is here -- much to the chagrin of his hometown in Indiana. It was recovered after 38 years on the ocean floor, along with the Mercury dimes that were hidden inside as souvenirs (and are also displayed). Adjacent to it is another Space Race icon, the command capsule Odyssey from Apollo 13, which the Smithsonian unwisely passed on before the Tom Hanks movie made it acceptable to admire. The Cosmosphere, with an eye for crowd-pleasers, shows clips from the film on a nearby screen.
An exhibit on the "moon diaper" is another exclusive for the Cosmosphere -- officially called a "Fecal Management Subsystem." Also seen only at the Cosmosphere is the full-size lunar lander used by actors in space suits on NBC-TV when the moon video feed was too fuzzy. Displayed next to it is the Lunokhod, a Soviet Iron Age robot-contraption that was creaking across the lunar surface as late as 1973. An Apollo XI moon rock, exhibited in its own case, was missing when we visited, removed for safe-keeping because the floor had gotten wet.
There's still more upstairs at the Cosmosphere, including a space shuttle IMAX film that we didn't have a chance to see. We ended our tour at "Dream," a large painting that reminded us of China's Cultural Revolution propaganda art and that seemed to have been concocted by a committee wanting to include everything. It crams onto one canvas the founders of the museum, school kids, the moon, a couple of astronauts, a lunar lander, the Hubble space telescope, the Space Shuttle Endeavor, the International Space Station, a Saturn V rocket, Explorer I, Sputnik, a V2, a Gemini capsule, and the Museum's Apollo 13 capsule and Liberty Bell 7, which for some reason is perched atop a marble column.