A great little museum: The Kansas Cosmosphere

If you ever find yourself in south central Kansas, make time for a visit to the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson. It’s a fantastic museum to the history of space flight.

This post is adapted from a story I wrote for The Hutchinson News in April 2012, as the Cosmosphere prepared to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Charlie Duke lived the dream of exploring outer space. He was part of the U.S. space program for nine years. He flew on Apollo 16 and walked on the moon in 1972.

An SR 71 Blackbird spy plane greets visitors in the lobby of the Cosmosphere.

An SR 71 Blackbird spy plane greets visitors in the lobby of the Cosmosphere.

Yet he can be as excited as any child when walking through the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center.

“As I walk through and see the various mockups and the spacecraft that were flown, it’s a trip through memory lane for me,” Duke said. “I spent six years on Apollo and worked on five of the nine missions that went to the moon, so it brings back many, many memories.”

The Cosmosphere, he said, is one of the best collections of space artifacts in the world. From a German V-2 rocket to the Liberty Bell 7 and Apollo 13 spacecraft, it’s a “national treasure,” Duke said.

And always, like so many others, he is also amazed that such a museum ended up in Hutchinson, Kan., hundreds of miles from NASA’s launch pads at Cape Canaveral, Fla., mission control outside Houston or the Massachusetts farm where Dr. Robert Goddard launched the first liquid fueled rocket in 1926.

Why Hutchinson?  The answer is pretty simple: Patty Carey.

Ernestine Gilliland, Denny Stevens and Patty Carey all look at the Spitz A-2 star projector in an old photo from Patty Carey’s scrapbook of the Hutchinson Planetarium, which started in the Poultry Exhibit building at the Kansas State Fair in 1962.

Ernestine Gilliland, Denny Stevens and Patty Carey all look at the Spitz A-2 star projector in an old photo from Patty Carey’s scrapbook of the Hutchinson Planetarium, which started in the Poultry Exhibit building at the Kansas State Fair in 1962.

Carey, who died in 2003, used her boundless energy, determination and powers of persuasion to turn a “chicken coop” into a planetarium that grew and evolved into the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, which last April celebrated 50 years of operation since the first star show in the State Fair Poultry Building in 1962.

Patty’s son, Brooks Carey, who grew up in Hutchinson but now lives in Charlotte, N.C., was recently rummaging through some things at home and came across two small pieces of paper bearing his mother’s distinctive handwriting and notes she apparently had made in preparation for a speech.

Patty Carey, her son explained, was the daughter of a learned Oklahoma banker and lawyer who encouraged his children’s intellectual growth.

“She grew up in a household where reading and learning was part of what happened,” Brooks Carey said. “She was always, always into something, archeology, science, etc., all her life.”

Twice when she was a child her parents took Patty Carey and her two older brothers on around-the-world tours. It was of one of those tours that Patty Carey wrote: “As a child I saw a wonderful machine in Germany. It could project the sun, moon and stars on a dome and show their movements in a simulated night sky. It could take one year into the future or the past. It was called a planetarium. I was hooked on this wonderful and fascinating creation. That was the beginning of my interest in astronomy. A seed had been planted, waiting for a little nourishment to grow. The idea for a planetarium for Hutch was conceived and implemented in just three days in October of 1962.”

That’s when Patty Carey learned that the planetarium in her hometown of Oklahoma City was getting a new star projector and selling its old one.

“I think she went right down there and bought it, or committed to buy it and said I’ll get the money later and came back up and talked to people in Hutchison,” Brooks Carey said.

The command module from the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission is at the Cosmosphere.

The command module from the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission is at the Cosmosphere.

Patty, the wife of Howard “Jake” Carey, the grandson of Carey Salt founder Emerson Carey, was already known as an energetic, persuasive organizer who’d helped revive the Follies, a local stage show that benefited St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.

No sooner had she talked some of Hutchinson’s wealthier residents into donating $7,200 for the star projector than she finagled permission to set it up in the Poultry Barn and was twisting the arms of her friends to do research, devise star shows and sell tickets.

“She had a way of getting you to do something you didn’t even realize she was working on you until you had practically started to work on the project,” said Patty’s friend Gerry Hollingsworth. “I loved the way she would ask anyone for anything and they crumbled. It was a marvelous, marvelous thing to watch, a little scary sometimes if she looked at you.”

Marty Fee, another friend, recalled that the Poultry Building was unheated and often it was in the winter months when the Poultry Building was available to set up the dome on which stars were projected.

“She would ask me to come and sell tickets,” Fee recalled. “The little dome held the sky projector and it was operated by Patty and one or two other people who knew how to do that. And the customers sat around the edges inside to get the dome perspective and sky atmosphere. There was a space heater for the patrons, but not outside for the ticket sellers. So we wore our heavy coats, boots and mittens and stood outside and shivered while everybody watched the show inside, and then everybody would come out and we would sell tickets for the next show that afternoon.”

The first show was perhaps an omen of what the planetarium was to become. A story in The Hutchinson News of Oct. 20, 1962, described the show as a “20-minute journey to outer space.”

“Viewers briefly visited the planetary worlds of Venus, Saturn, Mars and the moon across the domed background of a starlit sky,” the paper reported.

The slide rule once used by Wernher von Braun, who headed the German rocket program in World War II and then the U.S. space program.

The slide rule once used by Wernher von Braun, who headed the German rocket program in World War II and then the U.S. space program.

But from the beginning, Carey knew the planetarium needed a permanent home, and in the mid-1960s she led the campaign to raise $55,000 for a planetarium wing on the new science building at Hutchinson Community College. In 1966, the new wing opened and the ticket sellers were able to come in out of the cold.

“With the move to the junior college campus,” Carey wrote in one of the notes discovered by her son, “we became much more professional and business like. We hired a director, which meant we didn’t have to rely on volunteer lecturers any more. But we still rely on volunteers to man the gift shop, take tickets, etc.”

And over the next few years, Carey’s vision continued to grow and the idea of expanding the planetarium into a museum dedicated to the exploration of space began to evolve.

“Think of all that was happening — the Cold War, the space race, (President) Kennedy in ’61 or ’62 talked about putting a man on the moon in however many years,” Brooks Carey said. “This was riveting. This was like the Super Bowl. This was front page all the time. People were scared witless about nuclear war, and space was just a way to throw bombs further. You send someone to space you can send a missile to Washington.  The planetarium, that was just part and parcel of people’s thinking about space. The timing was great, and it morphed from just a planetarium into the Cosmosphere in stages. But that was important thing in American life back then. So I think she had a little bit of a tailwind.”

german gallery

The German gallery at the Cosmosphere includes actual V-1 and V-2 rockets from World War II.

In 1976, the planetarium hired Max Ary as its executive director and later that year plans were publicly announced for a $1.5 million Kansas Cosmosphere and Discovery Center.

“Max Ary was enormously instrumental in taking mom’s vision and making it work,” Brooks Carey said. “He built relationships with people in NASA, the Smithsonian and people all around the country, scrounging for space stuff.  Mom, she was clearly the chairman. He was chief operating officer if you put it in corporate structure.  He was doing things every day.”

Added Dick Hollowell, the Cosmosphere’s current CEO: “It’s phenomenal what two of them were able to do in 40 years.”

Back in the ’70s, Brooks Carey said, it was much easier than it is today to get your hands on spacecraft and space artifacts. There weren’t a lot of museums competing for what most people simply regarded as space junk. Patty Carey and Ary travelled all over the county – collecting a lunar module in Seattle, spacesuits in Houston, something else somewhere else.

“People were saying, ‘you want this junk, you take it. You come get it, it’s yours,’” Brooks Carey said. “They were not going around to auctions to buy this stuff. They were going around taking it off back lots back then. It’s hard to imagine right now, but I think it was pretty easy for them to get some of this stuff if you knew who to call, how to do it.”

“Houston, Alabama (the Marshall Space Flight Center), Cape Canaveral, the Smithsonian — if they had wanted any of this stuff it would never have been in Hutchinson. I mean we were way down the list of people. The fact that they got it means that it was available.”

Patti Wamsley remembered the ground breaking for the new building at 11th and Plum in 1979, when a satellite signal was used to set off an explosive charge in the parking lot. That was no sooner done that Patty Carey began working her friends and acquaintances again.

“Once we got started, she said ‘We’re going to need a lot more volunteers.’ And she looked at me and I thought, ‘OK,’” Wamsley recalled, mimicking her wary response. “She said we’ll need people to work in the gift shop, people to sell tickets and people to answer the phone because the phone is going to start wringing.”

Wamsley said she hated to answer the phone.  But it wasn’t that easy to wiggle out of Patty Carey’s grasp. If you didn’t like one job, she’d find another for you.

“So she looked at me and she said, ‘You know,  we’ll need people to talk about the artifacts we’re getting in.’”

Wamsley protested that she didn’t know anything about space. “I don’t know Mercury from Gemini,” she said.

“We’ll get books,” Patty Carey replied.

Wamsley has been a docent, leading tours at the Cosmosphere, for more than 30 years now.

“Patty twisted my arm, and I didn’t feel a thing,” Wamsley said.

While Patty Carey asked much of her friends, she also did much herself. Photos from the 1960s show her perched on a ladder helping to assemble the metal dome of the planetarium and learning to operate the star projector. Her home telephone was listed as the number to call to arrange special showings of the planetarium’s Christmas program in 1963.

“As far as I could tell she would do anything, but she wouldn’t ask anybody to do anything she wouldn’t do,” said Ann Adams, another friend and a planetarium/Cosmosphere volunteer for more than 40 years,

Today, the Cosmosphere is much more than a planetarium. It has a domed theater, Dr. Goddard’s lab for teaching children about science and a museum collection of more than 15,000 space artifacts, so many that only about 7 percent are actually on display at any one time.

The two biggest stars of the show, of course, are Gus Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 Mercury space capsule and the Apollo 13 command module.

The Cosmosphere’s Spaceworks Division restored Gus Grissom’s Mercury spacecraft, the Liberty Bell 7, after it was recovered after spending 38 years at the bottom of the ocean.

The Cosmosphere’s Spaceworks Division restored Gus Grissom’s Mercury spacecraft, the Liberty Bell 7, after it was recovered after spending 38 years at the bottom of the ocean.

Liberty Bell 7 sank to the bottom of the ocean after splash down in 1961 and remained there until the Discovery Channel financed a mission to recover it in 1999. The Cosmosphere staff completely restored the space craft, and after a national tour it returned to Hutchinson for permanent display in the Cosmosphere.

The Apollo 13 lunar landing mission had to be abandoned after an explosion in a liquid oxygen tank two days into the flight. But the mission was celebrated as a colossal success after NASA was able to overcome numerous obstacles and return the crew safely to Earth. Hollywood director Ron Howard turned Apollo 13 into a hit movie in 1995, starring Tom Hanks and full-scale mockups of the spacecraft built by the Cosmosphere’s Spaceworks division.

Visitors also can see a World War II German V-1 rocket, essentially the first cruise missile, and the German V-2 rocket, the first ballistic missile.

Hollowell also proudly notes that the Cosmosphere has the largest collection of Soviet/Russian space artifacts outside of Moscow, including what was a flight-ready backup for Sputnik 1, the world’s first man-made satellite, and a Vostok spacecraft.

“I’m just amazed every day I come in and walk into this building,” Wamsley said. “I think of this beautiful building and our wonderful staff, a lot of whom have not met (Patty Carey) and know about her, but all of them carry this little spark of her and that’s why the Cosmosphere keeps going.”

 

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