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Now flanked by Space Race rockets, Cosmosphere began in 1962 as a planetarium in the Kansas State Fair poultry building.


Field review by the editors.

Hutchinson, Kansas

When a space museum names itself Cosmosphere, no one should be surprised that it contains the largest collection of Soviet space (i.e. cosmonaut) artifacts outside of Russia. What is surprising is that this double-headed eagle has landed in the USA, and that it's far from mainstream space tourism hubs in Texas, Alabama, and Florida. It's in Kansas, in the modest-sized city of Hutchinson, dead-center in the Lower 48.

Laika, Soviet space dog.
Laika, Soviet space dog, the first astro-pooch.

This farm-state space destination also has the second largest collection of U.S. space artifacts outside the Smithsonian. Add to that the Soviet relics, and Cosmosphere has the largest dual-nation collection of space stuff anywhere on the planet.

No rockets were launched in Hutchinson, no space heroes were born here, no satellites crashed downtown. Cosmosphere is in Hutchison because from the late 1970s to the early 1990s the Smithsonian and the Soviets jettisoned a lot of their space artifacts, and Hutchinson said, "We'll take them!"

Rocket engines.
The RD-107 engine powered Russia's early cosmonauts.

"These artifacts just became 'extra parts' in the minds of the government," said Mimi Meredith, Cosmosphere's chief development officer. The idea that the USA once sold its history-making space hardware the way it sold used office furniture sounds improbable now. But it did, and so did the Soviet Union. "The Russians needed the money," said Mimi.

Cosmosphere has a 4k dome theater and a planetarium, a "CosmoKids" hand-on play area, and a "Dr. Goddard's Lab" for live space-science demonstrations. But this attraction's rocket-power engine has always been its artifacts, exhibited in its Hall of Space, a chronological walk through roughly a hundred years of humankind's slightly-incomprehensible efforts to go where there's no gravity or air.

Wally Schirra's spacesuit.
Wally Schirra's Mercury 8 space suit.

The Hall 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 the replica Bell X-1 rocket plane used in the movie The Right Stuff, a "supersonic torture chair" Sonic Wind II rocket sled, and a Redstone missile atomic warhead. A statue of JFK grins from a rocking chair as a fist-shaking Khrushchev stands between two graffiti-slathered slabs of the German Wall (part of the Berlin Wall outside of Berlin). "Touch it!" commanded one mom-tourist 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 explore the flame pit of a 109-foot-high Titan II rocket. Back inside, one sees the fickle power of these missiles in the shattered hulk of Mercury-Atlas 1, America's first (unmanned) space capsule, whose rocket blew up less than a minute after launch.

Soviet space relics 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 capsules -- the industrial boiler equivalents of America's Mercury and Apollo spacecraft -- are displayed.

Lenin faces off with Uncle Sam.
Lenin faces off with Uncle Sam in the Cold War Gallery.

And then there's the backup Luna Sphere. Launched in September 1959, the Luna Sphere was essentially a bomb, shaped like a soccer ball, covered with titanium Soviet Union emblems. When it smashed into the moon the Luna Sphere exploded, spewing its tiny "flags" all over the surface... maybe (The whole thing might also have vaporized on impact). "The idea was that once it detonated, no matter who got to the moon, they would see that the Soviets got there first," said Shannon Whetzel, Cosmosphere's curator. "Officially, I love all the artifacts equally. But the Luna Sphere is my favoritist artifact ever."

Cosmonaut helmet and gloves.
Helmet and gloves identical to those worn by Yuri Gagarin, first human in space.

Mimi told us that Cosmosphere's collection is so large that it displays only 7 to 8 percent of what it has. Many of the artifacts are cycled in and out or loaned to other museums. If you're lucky when you visit you'll see Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 capsule (much to the probable envy of his hometown space museum in Indiana), recovered after 38 years on the ocean floor, along with the Mercury dimes that were hidden inside as souvenirs (and are also displayed). Another Space Race icon, the command capsule Odyssey from Apollo 13, is on long-term loan from the Smithsonian -- its way of thanking Cosmosphere for the spacecraft's preservation.

Also seen only at the Cosmosphere is the full-size lunar lander built by Grumman Engineering for NBC Nightly News as a backdrop for its moon-landing news anchors (We recall that the camera would cut to actors in space suits outside the replica lunar lander when the moon video feed was too fuzzy). Nearby is a genuine Apollo 11 moon rock, exhibited in its own super-secure case.

Space exploration didn't stop with the Apollo missions and neither does Cosmosphere, which has artifacts from Skylab, and Mir, and a full-size replica of Apollo-Soyuz, and pieces of the tragic Space Shuttle Columbia, and replicas of some of the Mars rovers, and the simulator-trainer used by the pilots of SpaceShip One, part of the attraction's expanding private space flight collection. "We have great relations with people at SpaceX and Blue Origin for artifacts that are being created as we're having this conversation," said Mimi. The exhibit about "Living in Space" -- which apparently is where we're all heading -- has what curator Shannon said is Cosmosphere's most popular exhibit with kids: the space toilet.

The Dream.
"Dream" mural is a highlight reel of Cosmosphere artifacts.

We ended our visit to Cosmosphere in front of "Dream," a large mural that reminded us of Mao-era Cultural Revolution art. It appears to have been concocted by a committee that wanted to include everything, cramming 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, the Apollo 13 capsule... and Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7, which, like the space geek treasure that it is, sits atop a classical marble column.


1100 N. Plum St., Hutchinson, KS
East side of downtown, at the corner of N. Plum St. and E. 11th Ave. From KS-61/Kennedy Fwy turn west at the stoplight onto E. 11th Ave. and drive one mile. Look for the rockets on the right.
Su-Th 9-5, F-Sa 9-7 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $26.50
RA Rates:
The Best
Save to My Sights

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