Episode 69

69. Soviet Spacecraft in the American Heartland: The Story of the Kansas Cosmosphere

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About this Episode

From Apollo Mission Control in Houston, Texas, to the field in southeastern Russia where Yuri Gargarin finished his first orbit, there are many sites on earth that played a role in space exploration. But Hutchinson, Kansas isn’t one of them.

And yet, Hutchinson—a town of 40,000 people—is home to the Cosmosphere, a massive space museum. The Cosmosphere boasts an enormous collection of spacecraft, including the largest collection of Soviet space hardware anywhere outside Russia. How did all of these space artifacts end up in the middle of Kansas?

To find out, I visited Hutchinson to talk to Cosmosphere curator Shannon Whetzel. In this episode, Whetzel describes the story of the Cosmosphere as “being in the right place at the right time,” why the museum’s collection includes “destroyed” artifacts, and how she interprets Soviet hardware for a new generation.

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Transcript

Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 69. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear, and only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

[Intro]

There are many sites on earth that played a role in human spaceflight: the mission control building in Houston, Texas where flight engineers communicated with the Apollo astronauts on the moon, or even the grassy field in southeastern Russia where Yuri Gargarin landed to end his mission as the first person in space.

But Hutchinson, Kansas isn’t one of these sites. No spacecraft engineering happened here, like in Huntsville, Alabama. No rocket testing happened here, like in Perlington, Mississippi. There’s not even a historic, exploration-related radio telescope here, like in Parkes, Australia.

Despite this, Hutchinson -- a town of 40,000 people -- is home to the Cosmosphere, a massive space museum. The Cosmosphere boasts an enormous collection of spacecraft, including the largest collection of Soviet space hardware anywhere outside Russia. How did all of these space artifacts end up in the middle of Kansas?

To find out, I visited Hutchinson to talk to Cosmosphere curator Shannon Whetzel.

Shannon Whetzel: I think some of our brochures say, “why not Kansas”, right? The story of the Cosmosphere is more or less the right place at the right time.

Whetzel says that the museum has had many decades to be in the right place at the right time.

Shannon Whetzel: Hello, my name is Shannon Whetzel, and I am the curator here at the Cosmosphere.

The Cosmosphere’s first iteration was a star projector and folding chairs set up at the Kansas State Fair Grounds in 1962 by a woman named Patty Carey. She was inspired by the launch of Sputnik and ultimately wanted to set up a space science center in the Midwest.

Shannon Whetzel: The volunteers we have who have who knew her personally, I did not know her personally, have basically said she’s a very nice arm-twister. You didn’t say no to Patty Carey. And that planetarium grew to what you see now.

By the late 1970s, Patty Carey was making plans to transform the planetarium into the Kansas Cosmosphere and Discovery Center.

Shannon Whetzel: The collection as we know it started in the late 1970s. NASA is looking to… I hate to say “unload,” but looking to get some hardware out there for the public to see, and the Cosmosphere was beginning its first expansion, so we had the space and the connections, and that’s how we started collecting space hardware.

The Cosmosphere was the right place — a big building in the midwest— and the right time — the late 1970s. The era was a strange time for space exploration: it was after the Apollo program, but before the Space Shuttle. The Smithsonian Air and Space museum opened in Washington, DC in 1976, and I get the sense that a whole bunch of space artifacts that didn’t make the cut for that museum ended up in Hutchinson.

Shannon Whetzel: The Smithsonian and NASA… they want to get stuff… I say stuff… artifacts, priceless artifacts out for the public to see everywhere. Maybe also that’s a sign of their success, that they’ve gotten into the Midwest and it’s been a priority. And we are so grateful to the Smithsonian I don’t know if you noticed how many of our exhibits have Smithsonian labels. I believe we are the only Smithsonian affiliate in Kansas.

Looking carefully at the collection, you also see another pattern: hardware from missions that didn’t go exactly as planned. There’s a heavily damaged Mercury boilerplate capsule from the Mercury-Atlas 1 mission. There’s Liberty Bell 7, another Mercury Capsule that was the US’s second human spaceflight mission in 1961 -- the Astronaut survived, but the capsule sank into the ocean and wasn’t recovered until 1999. And then there’s the Apollo 13 Command Module, Odyssey, which was restored and added to the museum in 1995.

Shannon Whetzel: I think at the end of the Apollo 13 mission, the astronauts were home safe, it was fantastic, but I think it was viewed more as a failure than a success. So yes, Apollo 13 was display in France for a while, it wasn’t viewed as something that should be in the States as much. And then our guys restored it.

I can’t imagine any museum turning away the Apollo 13 Command Module today. But it is the Cosmosphere’s ethos to say yes to an unwanted, unrestored artifact -- even if that artifact is sitting under water, or somewhere in France. They see the investment in recovery and restoration as well worth the effort to add to their collection. And that’s what makes the museum so notable today.

But there’s also a point that the museum is making with the collection as a whole: space exploration is as much about the failures as about the successes.

Shannon Whetzel: I believe Apollo 13 had come up with that contingency plan before, it wasn’t on the fly. And in a way it was testing their contingency plan. And it went wonderfully. They got home safely.

Shannon Whetzel: We discuss a lot now about how it seems in our culture that there’s a fear of failure. We are afraid to fail. Or if something doesn’t work the first time, that means that that idea should be discarded. And I think that that’s not what got us to the moon. That’s not what made our space program successful. Without meaning to, that’s become one of our catch phrases around here. We don’t want our campers, our students to be afraid to fail.

But the collection isn’t just made up of American space hardware. The Cosmosphere also boasts the largest collection of Sovet space artifacts anywhere outside of Russia. And this fills in the sizeable gaps of how most other space museums present the Space Race. The Cosmosphere team, which included Patty Carey, started obtaining Sovet Space hardware in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Shannon Whetzel: Again, right place at the right time. The Sovet Union was crumbling, they were looking to get rid of their artifacts, we worked through a broker, and we were able to obtain them. And they are part of our collection. They are loaned pieces.

Why the decision to try to collect them? Why didn’t other museums try to, in the same way that you did?

Shannon Whetzel: I think that our early leaders were very visionary in what we could become and realized in a sense that we were only telling half the story.

Half of the Space Race gallery is colored red and filled with Soviet space objects and text about the Soviet human spaceflight program, and the other half is blue, telling the American story.

Shannon Whetzel: I think that our gallery is set up particularly well in the sense that you get the comparison. We split the gallery so you can get the sense of this is what’s going on in the Sovet Union at the time, this is what the Americans were doing. So I think our gallery does a very good job of comparing the two-- Mercury and Vostok are right beside each other.

The effect is striking -- the Cosmosphere is not a design museum, but by putting the artifacts from two different superpowers close to one another, you get an appreciation for the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in the industrial design -- compare the design language of the Lunokhod Moon Rover, on display at the museum, with Amercian Mars rovers that Americans might be more familiar with, and you can see the different ways each program approached the problems of surviving in space, even without the color coordination.

Whetzel’s favorite Soviet artifact is the Lunasphere, a copy of a soccer-ball shaped device carried by Luna 2, whose only purpose was to cover its crash-landing site on the moon with little pendents embossed with images of the hammer and sickle.

Shannon Whetzel: The Soviets send the Lunasphere, and it’s just a small ball that upon landing, it has a small explosive in it and all of these, our gallery calls them Cosmic Calling Cards go all over the surface of the moon. What a nice little metaphors for the cold war -- what a stick in the eye.

Whetzel also said that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to teach younger generations about the political context of the Space Race. After all, it’s been 30 years since the Berlin wall fell.

Shannon Whetzel: It is very difficult to explain the cold war. First of all they didn’t live through it, I don’t know if you did. It wasn’t black and white, there was so much grey, and I think that’s the difficult part. Especially, you’ve seen our gallery, it’s pretty big, a 45 minute tour down there you just barely make it to the shuttle, and that’s if you’re rushing. It’s difficult to portray those ideas in a short amount of time to a younger audience. No matter what you do, historically it gets wrapped up nice and neat.

As we change here on earth, so too does the way we teach the story of spaceflight. Whetzel gave me an example of the list of items humans have left on moon -- a list that includes everything from the propagandistic Lunasphere pendants to actual trash left by the Apollo astronauts.

Shannon Whetzel: I did a tour with our campers the other day, we do a collections tour, and I was telling them, and they were appalled. I was like, wow, the generational difference. They were appalled, they were like, “we trashed the moon”? And I was like, “we did.”

This is one of the reasons I will always keep coming back to space museums. The environmental consciousness that the Apollo program itself sparked by its images of a tiny, fragile, borderless earth, now gets the chance to reevaluate Apollo anew.

And that is just one of the ways that the Cosmosphere, free from a specific location, can tell the story of human space exploration better than a site-specific museum.

Visiting the Johnson Spaceflight Center in Houston, Texas, visitors learn about how that site played a role in the larger Apollo missions. Visiting the Parkes Observatory in Australia, you can learn about how the radio telescope was instrumental in broadcasting the famous image of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon to the world.

But the Cosmosphere allows visitors to take a step back.

This has been Museum Archipelago.