Space Murals Museum
Organ, New Mexico
It catches your eye from the highway: a steel storage tank painted with scenes from the U.S. space program, circa 1960-1986. Smiling astronaut heroes, with iconic spacecraft and insignia from Mercury, Gemini. Apollo, and Space Shuttle missions, ring the 360-degree terrestrial cylinder.
It's not some historic cyclorama painting. It's the metal billboard for the Space Murals Museum, a collection of NASA knick-knacks and orphaned artifacts -- items that other institutions didn't much care about -- donated by space enthusiasts, or by astronauts who befriended the museum's owner, or by locals who work in the space industry (NASA's White Sands Test Facility is just up the road).
"They took stuff home in lunch pails, shoe boxes, whatever," said owner Lou Gariano. "Then they said, 'Hey, we've got some NASA stuff in the basement, let's give it to Lou's museum!'" This approach -- astro-people cleaning out their garages -- gives the Space Murals Museum a personal touch that Lou feels is missing from other space attractions.
While the museum has no priceless otherworldly artifacts (it once had a pair of moon boots, but NASA took them away) it does have what is probably the world's most varied collection of pack-rat space jetsam and memorabilia.
There are commemorative t-shirts from shuttle landings, hunks of spacecraft insulation, heat tiles, gloves, helmets, lots of gold thermal blankets, a fireproof suit, an Apollo souvenir beer stein, a 45 rpm record by John Glenn, teddy bears in NASA coveralls, freeze dried macaroni and cheese from the long-gone MIR space station. Autographed publicity photos of astronauts are everywhere.
Lou is happy to take what other collections don't want. For example, from the Kennedy Space Center, he acquired a Mercury test capsule that blew off of a rocket in a hurricane. Lou pounded out the dents, and then built a circa 1962 interior for the capsule, using whatever he had on hand, including exhibits from the museum.
Hanging from the ceiling is a large scale model of the never-built Space Station Freedom, which Lou salvaged from the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo. "They were gonna throw it away," he said (Lou also had a massive, full-scale mock-up of Space Station Freedom, but he never had room to display it). Another saved-from-the-dump artifact is a battered, sun-baked tail section of a V-2 rocket, which Lou said flew (and crashed) only a few miles away, at White Sands Missile Range.
Lou calls himself "a hands-on museum guy." That's evident outside the museum's back door, where a sidewalk winds its way over a Shuttle-shaped fish pond and past a large wooden model of the Challenger, poised for liftoff by the highway. "We built that Challenger shuttle in our shop," said Lou, proudly. "We built that pond, we built the building, we built it all!"
The outdoor rocket garden is also the home of the Space Murals Museum's only mural, wrapped around a large metal tank. Lou had it painted in 1992, depicting noteworthy events in U.S. space history, ending with the 1986 Challenger disaster and smiling portraits of the doomed mission team (the mural was restored in 2004, but Lou didn't add new scenes). Coupled with the name of the museum, the mural sometimes causes confusion.
"I've had people come who want to know where the hell the door to the museum is in the tank," Lou said. "I tell them, 'You want to go in the tank? You'd better have scuba gear, because it's got a million and half gallons of water in it.'"
Lou calls the Space Murals Museum a "people's" space museum, stressing that it exists because of the closet-cleaning contributions of space-happy people. "We like it," he said. The fact that other people like it too is just another reason for Lou to keep it going.