Deke Slayton Memorial Space and Bicycle Museum
Two worlds collide at the Deke Slayton Memorial Space And Bicycle Museum, and the staff sees nothing unusual about it. "From sprockets to rockets" is the marketing catchphrase coined for the museum, telescoping the idea that the bicycle led to the Wright Brothers, the Wright Brothers led to airplanes, airplanes led to pilots, and pilots led to astronauts.
That's true, but the more relevant truth to this museum is that Sparta is the Bicycling Capital of the World, and Donald Kent "Deke" Slayton was an astronaut who lived on a nearby farm.
Deke was a star-crossed spaceman (although not as unlucky as Gus Grissom) who in 1962 was chosen from the first group of astronauts to be the second American to orbit the earth. Then NASA discovered that Deke had a bum heart and grounded him for 13 years. He finally made it into space as part of the Apollo-Soyuz mission, a flight that gave astronauts something to do between the moon landings and the Space Shuttle and is rarely given its due today (although the Kansas Cosmosphere has a nice display).
Missing out on space superhero-dom didn't seem to bother Deke, who by all accounts was a humble, hard-working guy. "He came home every chance he got," said museum expert Ann Lentz. "And whenever he was home he just did chores like everybody else. He didn't say, 'Here I am, I'm Deke Slayton, pamper me.'" One of the museums most prized possessions is a photo of Deke shoveling manure out of his barn while wearing his blue NASA flight suit.
A fiberglass Deke in his Apollo spacesuit greets visitors out on the sidewalk with a smile. He's on wheels and cable-locked to a rail -- on a windy day, that tether will prevent him from drifting away forever into the infinite expanse of the street.
Inside, the museum displays Deke's unused 1962 spacesuit horizontally, in a glass case, as if an invisible Deke were laid out in an astro-coffin. It's an odd configuration, but Ann said, "We display it the way NASA told us to display it."
NASA also provided detailed specifications for the display of the museum's tiny moon rock (That Deke's museum even has a precious moon rock is a testament to Deke's stature within NASA, since he never went to the moon.). "They gave us 7, 8, 10 sheets of how we were supposed to display this," said Ann. "We couldn't even put a fingerprint on the acrylic that's around it. We had to hold it with a shammy and attach it to the wall -- bolt it to the building. NASA's very specific." The tiny rock is dwarfed by its adjacent display, a large floor scale that tells you your weight on the Earth, Venus, Mars, and the Moon. Deke gave it to the town's high school, which apparently no longer wanted it -- their loss, since it still works.
Mixed among all of the Deke exhibits are bicycles, hundreds of them. Most are used models from local people, and since this is the Bicycle Capital of the World there are lots of used bicycles available. "For a while," said Ann, "we in effect became a storage facility for people who didn't have the space for all of their bicycles." Space -- there's another example of the connection. Ann said that the museum recently tightened its exhibit policy so that not just any bicycle can get in, although to our untrained eyes they all looked kind of alike.
To our surprise, the Deke Slayton Memorial Space And Bicycle Museum does not have a Deke Slayton bicycle. "We have a lawnmower bicycle," Ann offered. But, no, she admitted, the one exhibit that really would unify this collection is not here.
Deke died in 1993, years before the museum opened, but Ann felt that he would be pleased by its efforts. "I think he would be proud if he was here. I think it does him justice." And she offered a perspective on fame that we had never considered before: "You can't say of very many people that his name is spoken every single day of the year except for major holidays, either by answering the phone or when people come into the museum. You can't say that even of some presidents! Unless they have their own museum, like Deke."