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The Space Museum.

Space Museum and Grissom Center

Field review by the editors.

Bonne Terre, Missouri

"Would you like to wear a glove that's flown in space?" Earl Mullins, curator and founder of The Space Museum, held the bulky gauntlet. "It'll feel a little bit icky."

The glove -- which belonged to a Russian cosmonaut -- did feel strange. It was designed to be that way, but its ickyness may also have been because thousands of other people have also worn it, because Earl goes out of his way to get people to touch space stuff in his museum. Putting on the space glove is a rite-of-passage that almost no one refuses. "I want you to get that tingle up the back of your neck when you hold something that's been somewhere," Earl said. "I want people to realize this is real."

Earl Mullins, Space Museum curator and founder.
Earl Mullins, Space Museum curator and founder.

"Most genuine curators," he said with a smile, "hate me."

Collecting Astro-Everything

Earl, born in 1952, was a little too young to become a Space Race astronaut. But he loved the idea of space exploration, and gradually amassed an impressive personal collection of astro-everything: rockets, ray guns, spring-loaded moon shoes, space capsule cookie jars, teapots, beer mugs. With a zealot's tenacity he then talked NASA into loaning him real space stuff that he could never afford to collect, and in 2005 he opened The Space Museum in his hometown of Bonne Terre.

The museum, in a building that once belonged to the Bonne Terre Lead Mine, is packed with far more than you might think. We appreciated its cabinet-of-curiosities compression, especially when Earl said that it represented only a third of his collection (He rotates exhibits frequently).

Inspired by Moon Beeper Beanies

The Cold War.

Our cheerful space evangelist explained the theory behind displaying state-of-the-art Space Shuttle parts only a few feet from a cheap plastic Moon Beeper beanie. "These are the kinds of things that inspired the people who actually took us into space," Earl said of the toys and gizmos. "They wanted what they saw on television and the movies, so they went out and made it happen!"

Earl is a font of facts and trivia, and when he's elsewhere the museum provides a one-hour audio tour (scripted by Earl) as a worthy fill-in. He pointed out a moon training boot ("Every Apollo astronaut probably had his foot in it"), a genuine rocket launch key from Moscow ("The one on Pawn Stars is fake"), and some real lunar dust stuck to the side of a bag formerly filled with moon rocks ("It's more like 'moon smudge' than dust").

Gus Grissom's Space Knife

Astronaut collectibles.

Almost lost in one showcase was an exact copy of Gus Grissom's survival knife -- made by Earl himself -- designed so that early astronauts could cut their way out of their space capsules in an emergency. Another display was of a detailed model of the Mercury spacecraft, rotating on a turntable, used by its engineers to optimize its interior. "If they wanted to see if something would fit," said Earl, "they'd have to build it to scale and shove it in there."

The Space Museum.

Earl gave us a second space glove to wear, a charred relic of the catastrophic MIR fire of 1997. It looked like an oven mitt used to swat out burning kitchen grease, a reminder of the long decay that set into the space program after the Apollo missions. Earl believes that The Space Museum will help to turn that around. "We want to inspire our youth and adults to use that noodle between their ears again," he said. "We're trying very hard to become a resource and not just a roadside wonder."

Will people come to Bonne Terre to get the message? Earl believes that they will, and he's ready. "Space exploration is very important to the human species. Absolutely essential," he said. "When I can get people in here, I convert 'em."

Space Museum and Grissom Center

118 E. School St., Bonne Terre, MO
Downtown. On School St., a block south of where it splits away from Hwy 47, and just west of Fite St.
F-Sa 9-5, Su 1-5, or by appt. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $10.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Bonne Terre Mine: Billion Gallon LakeBonne Terre Mine: Billion Gallon Lake, Bonne Terre, MO - < 1 mi.
Lead Miner StatueLead Miner Statue, Bonne Terre, MO - < 1 mi.
Nike MissileNike Missile, Bonne Terre, MO - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Original Monster Truck, Pacific, MO - 41 mi.

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