Field review by the editors.

Hutchinson, Kansas

When a space museum names itself the Cosmosphere, no one should be startled to find it contains the largest collection of Russian space program and cosmonaut artifacts outside of Moscow. What is surprising is that the collection is in the USA, far from mainstream space tourism hubs in Texas, Alabama, and Florida. It's in Kansas, in the relatively modest-sized city of Hutchinson.

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

And while the Space Race is long over, the cache and appeal of this collection has risen. Americans don't "go to bed by the light of a Communist moon" (as then-U.S. senator Lyndon Johnson famously fretted), and look -- we made it to the moon first and even ended up with a lot of the cool Russky space stuff! But the Cosmosphere doesn't gloat like some military museum with a Hitler trash can head -- the displays respectfully present the trials and triumphs of both space superpowers. It's more of a spirited rivalry, like sports teams from neighboring farm towns, not a panicky rush to orbit spy satellites and bombs overhead.

A Nazi V-1 rocket.

Why is the Cosmosphere International Science Center and Space Museum in Hutchinson? No rockets were launched here, no astronauts were born here, no satellites crashed downtown. The Cosmosphere is here because the Smithsonian jettisoned a lot of its space artifacts in the late 1970s, and Hutchinson said, "We'll take them!" The bulk of the collection ends circa 1975 (although a life-size Space Shuttle model has been wedged over the lobby), which only means that the Cosmosphere has nothing but the Right Stuff.

Monkey capsule.

The Museum 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 a replica Bell X-1 rocket plane, a "supersonic torture chair" Sonic Wind II rocket sled, and a Redstone missile atomic warhead. A statue of JFK grins from a rocking chair at a fist-shaking Khrushchev atop a section of the German Wall (not the Berlin Wall). "Touch it!" commanded one camera-toting mom 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 climb a gantry around a Titan rocket and explore its flame pit. Back inside, one sees the fickle power of these missiles in the shattered hulk of Mercury 4, America's first (unmanned) space capsule, whose rocket blew up less than a minute after launch.

Fecal Management Subsystem, aka the Moon Diaper.

The Soviet space artifacts 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 capsule -- the industrial boiler equivalents of America's Mercury and Apollo spacecraft -- are displayed next to a "tragic heroes" exhibit of unlucky Russian space pioneers such as Grigori Nelyubov, who spoke too plainly at press conferences, was kicked out of the Cosmonaut Corps, and died when he was hit by a train while drunk.

Speaking of unlucky space pioneers, the Mercury dimes that were hidden inside Mercury 7 by Gus Grissom are displayed, as well as another Space Race icon, the command capsule Odyssey from Apollo 13, which is on permanent loan from the Smithsonian -- its way of thanking Cosmosphere for the spacecraft's preservation.

An exhibit on the "moon diaper" is another exclusive for the Cosmosphere -- officially called a "Fecal Management Subsystem." 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 news anchors (We recall that the camera would cut to actors in space suits outside the fake lunar lander when the moon video feed was too fuzzy). Nearby is a genuine Apollo XI moon rock, exhibited in its own super-secure case.

Elaborate painting about space exploration.

There's still more upstairs at the Cosmosphere, including a digital 4K film-in-a-dome that we didn't have a chance to see. We ended our tour at "Dream," a large painting that reminded us of China's Cultural Revolution propaganda art and that seemed to have been concocted by a committee wanting to include everything. It crams 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 Museum's Apollo 13 capsule, and Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7, which for some reason is perched atop a marble column.


Cosmosphere: International Sci-Ed Center and Space Museum

1100 N. Plum St., Hutchinson, KS
East side of downtown, at the corner of N. Plum St. and 11th Ave. From Hwy 61/Kennedy Freeway, turn west on 4th Ave. for one mile, then turn right on Plum St. Look for the rockets.
M-Sa 9-7, Su 12-7 (Call to verify)
Adults $26.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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