New Mexico Museum of Space History
Alamogordo, New Mexico
On the Earth end of space travel, the top three USA states have always been Florida, California, and Texas. The New Mexico Museum of Space History was built as a way to say, "Hey! Over here!" Housed in a glass cube that seems to hover above a scrubby desert hillside, it was the apex of cool when it opened in 1976.
The museum is still an astro-groovy place, partly because it stresses home state contributions, and partly because of its off-the-beaten-track desert location. It's preserved exhibits that committee-run institutional space attractions would have long-ago jettisoned (or never even considered).
There's a charming hand-made miniature of New Mexico's Trinity A-Bomb Monument on a burlap bag landscape, and a fun walk-in life-size crew module from "Space Station 2001" that looks as if it was built circa 1985. Our kind of stuff.
Local heroes are front-and-center at the museum. Ham the "World's First Astrochimp," who trained at nearby Holloman Air Force Base, is buried beneath its flag poles. The ticket booth lady told us that visitor offerings -- flowers and bananas -- are still routinely left atop Ham's grave (even though he's been dead since 1983).
The museum showcases Ham's little space suit and capsule-couch, along with a life-size chimp made of bronze.
John "Fastest Man Alive" Stapp, an Alamogordo resident, is immortalized in the museum's rocket garden. A metal chair mounted on train tracks, with a dozen ejection seat rockets strapped behind it, is a prized artifact. Indoors, an exhibit on Stapp notes that he rode the rocket sled 29 times and hoped to reach 1,000 mph, but that the sled broke before he could get the chance.
Visitors take an elevator to the top of the museum, then wind their way down a continuous ramp past five floors of exhibits, pulled earthward just like meteors and astronauts. Along the inner wall, plaques honor the members of the museum's International Space Hall of Fame. Stapp is appropriately enshrined, along with expected space superstars John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. But there are plenty of under-hyped pioneers, such as Max Valier, who built the world's first rocket-powered car, and Claude Nicollier, "The first Swiss in space."
The Icons of Exploration gallery displays some of the museum's most valuable objects, including the the biggest Moon Rock we've ever seen, safety-sealed in a transparent cylinder containing a plexiglass pyramid. Up in the gloom near the roof is a safety-yellow Gargoyle (America's belated version of a Nazi guided missile) and the 3-D replica of the moon that hung behind Walter Cronkite during his TV broadcasts of the lunar landing.
Other galleries follow, each with their own items of merit. There are Soviet spacesuits on mannequins with burlap bags heads; branded zero-gravity cans of Coke and Pepsi; a pint-sized moon rover robot that never left earth; a spare toilet from Skylab. There's even a full-size mock-up of the X-37, the super-secret DARPA mini-shuttle that hauls mysterious payloads, its nose cone painted with a very un-NASA-like grinning shark face.
Down near the gift shop is a display of Estes model rockets of X Prize competitors, most of which have yet to actually be built: the Cosmos Mariner, the Canadian Arrow, the Starchaser Thunderstar.
Around the corner, one of the last exhibits in the museum is a wall-size mural of nearby Spaceport America. It's an idyllic artist's conception, with a Mars-red sky filled with buzzing spacecraft and a terminal packed with happy travelers. It's also a vision of New Mexico's happy near-future, when The Land of Enchantment finally fulfills its destiny as America's hot spot for space travel.