April 2014- Flying over Kansas can seem like a never-ending view of wheat fields from horizon to horizon. That is a good situation if you are looking for an emergency landing place… but many of you may wonder what is down there.
The city of Hutchinson is just 30 miles northwest of Wichita on the northeast side of the Arkansas River. Hutchinson Municipal (KHUT) has a great FBO—Wells Aircraft—and in the middle of this city of 42,000 is Cosmosphere, one of the best space museums in the entire United States.
Taxing into Wells Aircraft you will be met by courteous and helpful linemen. The on-site restaurant, Airport Steak House, is a local gathering place that offers sit-down service with a full menu.
To find out more about the FBO and read firsthand endorsements about Wells’ service, visit the entry for KHUT at airnav.com. The notes about the FBO’s and restaurant’s service and courtesy go on and on.
Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center is part of the Smithsonian Institution Affiliations Program and rivals the Smithsonian is its depth and breadth of space artifacts. Cosmosphere had a humble beginning when Patty Carey, a local civic leader, brought a planetarium to Hutchinson in the early 1960s.
The facility has expanded into an internationally recognized space artifact collection. Cosmosphere’s campus features the Hall of Space Museum, Carey Digital Dome Theater, Justice Planetarium, Dr. Goddard’s Lab, a seven-passenger motion simulator, gift shop and food court.
As you walk up to the Cosmosphere facility you’ll see a Jupiter launch booster with a Mercury capsule on top. On the other side of the museum is a Titan Gemini combination that looks like it is ready to go into space.
Entering the lobby you are immediately confronted with the nose of a SR-71 Blackbird. As you walk to the front of this huge aircraft, you can look up over the top of the wing along the entire length of the aircraft. Duck under the nose and look into the wheel well and then along the entire belly from nose to tail.
Tucked up high in back of the Blackbird is a T-38 Talon, sometimes called the “astronauts’ toy.” The T-38 was used to keep astronauts flight proficient and as transportation around the country to various space facilities.
The ticket counter is in the lobby, or you can purchase advance tickets online via the Cosmosphere website. Adult admission is $22 for an all-day Mission pass; the price is $20 for kids ages four to 12, seniors (age 60 and older) and members of the military. Tickets are also available for individual venues.
Cosmosphere is no duck-in-for-15-minutes-and-be-on-your-way attraction. There are enough items of interest to keep you enthralled all day if you have the time. Consider spending the day to explore all the attractions and make plans for an overnight stay.
Hall of Space Museum
The museum is structured to be a walk through the history of rocket science and space exploration. The space artifacts are not located in a single large room but are displayed in connecting corridors arranged chronologically from the beginning of rocket research to current-day space exploration.
The tour starts with a panel honoring Robert Goddard as the father of liquid-fueled rocketry. The work went largely unnoticed in America and was even ridiculed by the U.S. press, but Dr. Goddard’s findings were studied by German rocket scientists and quickly adapted by Wernher von Braun and his colleagues.
The German Hall shows the development of rockets and the Germans’ focus on the inexpensive V-1 flying bomb (or “buzz bomb”) that was an early cruise missile with a crude guidance system. Fixed-direction launchers sent the V-1 on its way, and the only control was a spinning propeller on the nose that controlled the fuel shutoff that sent the bomb plummeting to the ground.
The more complex V-2 rocket was the first ballistic missile. It was powered by a liquid-fueled rocket motor with guide vanes in the exhaust stream (patterned after Goddard’s pioneering research) and created a high explosive delivery system that was unstoppable.
The V-1 program was a technical triumph—and a strategic disaster for the German war machine. Germany invested $3 billion in V-1 and V-2 development, which was twice what the United States invested in the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb.
If Germany had allocated its resources to the Me 262 jet fighter and their ever-improving air defenses instead of the rocket program, D-Day may have not happened. As it went, though, the Allies did have air superiority over the beaches at Normandy.
Panels in the exhibits depict the decisions that the German scientists had to make as the war came to an end. Peenemünde, a village on the Baltic Sea, was the location for the majority of the V-2 development work—and it was in the direct path of the Russian Army.
Von Braun and a number of his colleges decided to head west and surrender to the advancing Americans rather than be captured by the Russians. This decision set the foundation for the future American rocket program.
American soldiers stumbled onto the underground V-1 and V-2 assembly plant near Nordhausen, 550 miles to the south of Peenemünde. After surrendering to the U.S. forces, von Braun and the scientists revealed where they had buried blueprints and other technical data.
The Americans started a mad scramble to liberate the Germans’ data, tooling and completed V weapons from an area that was to be part of Russian-occupied territory. In nine days, American troops removed 341 trainloads of material leaving an empty factory for the Russians to occupy. The material removed from Nordhausen gave the American space program a significant boost.
The Space Race
The captured V-2 rockets were the precursor of the Redstone rocket. Von Braun lobbied for a space exploration application for these rockets but the Eisenhower Administration opted for a civilian launch rocket—that was Vanguard. After Sputnik 1’s surprise success and Vanguard’s initial failure, von Braun and his team got their chance.
During the early day of the Space Race, the Russians had the advantage with their larger rockets that were necessary to launch heavier nuclear warheads. The Americans were at a severe disadvantage with smaller booster rockets used to propel lighter warheads. The Mercury program was a start; President Kennedy’s speech committing to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade was the inspirational impetus for getting the U.S. space program underway.
Dr. von Braun was one of the few people capable of understanding all of the pieces necessary to make the Apollo program a success. What size booster rockets were necessary, and what else was necessary to get to the moon and return to earth and land safely? In parallel panels, the Cosmosphere museum chronicles the race with the American-structured approach from Mercury to Gemini and finally, Apollo—programs that culminated with exploration of the moon.
Cosmosphere is truly an international space artifact exhibit. Its collection of Russian space artifacts is the largest outside of Moscow. During the mid-1960s the Russian program seemed to lose direction and never got close to a moon landing. The truth (discovered later) was that the Russians lost a cosmonaut when the Soyuz 1 capsule’s parachute failed to deploy and the capsule crashed, killing Col. Vladimir Komarov.
The massive N-1 booster, equivalent to the Saturn V, suffered many technical delays never successfully launched. The Soyuz parachute failure and delays with the N-1 booster ended the Soviets’ chance to reach the moon and return. It was now a U.S. race with no other challengers.
Spaceworks restorations and displays
Cosmosphere has the largest collection of space artifacts outside of the Smithsonian, and is the only other museum to display actual capsules that made flights into space.
Spaceworks is the in-house restoration facility that received Gus Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 after recovery from the ocean floor and restored it for museum display.
The Apollo 13 Command Module, Odyssey, carried Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise around the moon after an explosion canceled the mission’s lunar landing—and then focus turned to getting the astronauts safely to earth. The movie “Apollo 13” portrays the drama and problem solving necessary to manage one crisis after another, and Spaceworks restoration lab resources were a major resource in creating authentic sets for this movie.
After Odyssey’s historic return from space it was returned to the manufacturer and disassembled. Parts were sent to subcontractors and there was nothing left but a shell. As the country came to realize the value of preserving this national treasure, the Cosmosphere got the task to reassemble Odyssey for display.
Today you can see Liberty Bell 7, Gemini X and Odyssey on display in the halls dedicated to the trip to the moon. Other highlights include two Soviet space capsules: Voskhod, the first Soviet three-person capsule; and Vostok, which held a crew of one.
Personal involvement in the Space Race
I was a Mechanical Engineering graduate student at the University of Alabama in 1961. All of the university research was focused on supporting NASA at Huntsville, yet my classmates and I did not think of this work as any big deal at the time.
My advisor mentioned to me that Huntsville was interested in the pressure decay and temperature drop in a set of series connected spheres located on top of the rocket fuel and oxygen tanks in Saturn V. I told the professor that I would look into how to model these tanks. I couldn’t find any research on the subject, so I started to model the connected tanks with a set of nonlinear simultaneous differential equations.
The problem was that there were no hand-derived solutions. These were the early days of digital computers—and I needed to get a solution right now in order to graduate. The solution was to program the analog computers in the university lab to create a solution, and then confirm the results with a set of tanks designed to simulate the Saturn V tank installations.
When I described the atmosphere of the mechanical engineering program at the university and detailed to my wife what I had solved, she snickered and told me I was a rocket scientist. Looking back, I now understand these were heady times and not just another day at the office.
One of the best books describing what the ground support crews did to keep things going smoothly on the ground to support the astronauts is a memoir by Gene Kranz, the primary flight director of the White Team during the Apollo 13 mission’s emergencies. This book, titled “Failure Is Not an Option,” threw me right back into the days when I was in a small way contributing solutions to the Space Race.
Other displays and exhibits
From the main lobby you can look down on a lunar lander, and when you exit the museum you’ll have another view of the lander. Looking at this space traveler I was amazed at how fragile the structure’s skins look. Sure, the landing legs are sturdy, but the outside skins almost look like aluminum foil. These parts did not need to carry any aerodynamic load so there was no reason to make the skins any heavier than necessary. As a corollary, look at how fragile some of the structures are on our aircraft.
Dr. Goddard’s Lab is an experiential exhibit designed to explain rocketry. A presenter dressed as Dr. Goddard might have looked 100 years ago explains propulsion through experiments that show action and reaction, plus how fuel and oxidizer combine to create thrust.
It’s the perfect arena to expand the mind of an intermediate school student and even guide them toward pursuing a scientific or engineering education. Cosmosphere also offers summer space camps for children which may inspire them to further possibilities for a life profession.
As you leave the main lobby on the way to Dr. Goddard’s Lab, you will see many examples of current moon and interplanetary rovers, those configured with tracks and those with wheels. Diagrams show how they arrived at faraway planets and descended to a successful landing to carry on scientific experiments.
Nowhere else in the world
There is no other space museum like Cosmosphere other than the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Some of the exhibits in Hutchinson, Kan. aren’t available anywhere else in the world.
If you find yourself traveling across the Great Plains and need a place to stop, consider lingering a while in Hutchinson, Kan. You’ll have great airport service and you can even take a trip to space and back at the Cosmosphere.
Charles Lloyd has logged 10,000 hours since his first flying lesson in 1954. He worked for Cessna Aircraft for 16 years, and retired as captain for a major fractional aircraft ownership company. His personal aircraft is a great business tool for his real estate