Little museum in New Mexico has a lot of space

March 26, 1995|By Lisa Thatcher Kresl | Lisa Thatcher Kresl,Dallas Morning News

No, you're not spacing out. That is a model of the shuttle Challenger set for liftoff on the side of the highway. It's right next to the space mural/water tank and the shuttle-shaped pond, just down the road from the Star Wars Deli.

The Space Murals Inc. museum and gift shop may not be in any guidebook, but it has been stopping traffic since 1991, when water-company owner Lou Gariano got the idea to dress up his steel water tank on U.S. Highway 70, about 12 miles northeast of Las Cruces, N.M.

People saw the artist painting images of the first spacewalk, Skylab and the Challenger blastoff, among other things, and stopped to find out more. "Do you have extra information?" they'd ask, and, "What about photos?"

So Mr. Gariano got some. He wrote to 188 astronauts requesting photographs and memorabilia. About 110 responded, and he opened a one-room museum and gift shop next to the water tank.

But Mr. Gariano didn't stop there. He arranged to borrow items from the Space Center in nearby Alamogordo. He asked for loans from space junkies' personal collections. He even hit up regular folk for souvenirs and collectibles.

When a space agency or company wanted to toss something as junk, Mr. Gariano took it. And what Mr. Gariano couldn't get, he built himself.

Since he began work on the museum in June 1993, he has built an addition and set up a mini-park out back. At the dedication Oct. 3, 1994, the extension was unfinished, so he just hung the displays on Sheetrock.

Although the exhibits are still evolving, people just can't get enough of what Mr. Gariano has assembled.

"We're calling it 'The People's Museum' because people have donated 88 percent of the items," says Mr. Gariano, 62. "One guy brought over 1,100 pictures himself. This building isn't going to be big enough in another six months."

Make your way up the front walk, and you can tell this is not like most other museums. "Welcome" is spelled out in brick-red and white rocks near the entrance, and the young woman behind the counter greets you as if you were a weekend houseguest.

Get past the shuttle erasers and space magnets for sale in the gift shop and you'll find:

* A mannequin modeling "shuttle in-flight coveralls";

* Aerial photographs of Merritt Island, Fla., in 1967;

* A couple of space shuttle heating tiles;

* Front pages of the Chicago Tribune and Pennsylvania's Reading Eagle, when space exploration made the headlines;

* Pictures of astronauts, famous and not, along with autographs and patches from some of their missions;

* Photographs representing every branch of the military;

* A poster about black holes;

* A video showing astronauts floating in weightlessness and rockets bursting into the sky;

* A wreath in memory of the Challenger crew and a memorial poem about them in a floral frame.

Exit through the back door and take the bridge over the shuttle-shaped pond and there's more -- old rockets, missiles and engines. A guidebook details each of the historic moments on the tank mural: the X-15, which set new altitude and speed records; the 1975 U.S. and Russia hookup in space; the Columbia STS-3's 1982 landing at White Sands, N.M.; the space program's first fatal accident.

"At first I thought, Who would be interested in 20- or 30-year-old stuff?" says Mr. Gariano. "I was dead wrong. Elderly people come in here and spend hours. I had one woman come in with her grandson. She was here 45 minutes and said, 'I'll be back, but without my grandson.'

"People remember when all of this happened," he says. "Some were even involved with it at the time."

Spend an afternoon at the People's Museum, and you'll feel as if you're at some cosmic-crazed collector's house, peeking at his prize finds.

You may be.

"People come and say, 'I have finally found a place to put my stuff,' " says Mr. Gariano. "Some worked for a company, brought stuff home and put it in a shoe box, but now it's declassified and they want to do something with it."

The displays put the exclamation point back into space exploration.

"These boots walked on the moon!" reads the handwritten sign next to a pair of boots, one tipped over so you can see the dirt on the sole.

Mr. Gariano is showing off the display he put up the day before -- some photos of what may be space debris -- then describes his latest acquisition, a 45-rpm record. "It's John Glenn talking to mission control," says Mr. Gariano, "and John Glenn signed it!"

Even the astronauts who respond to Mr. Gariano's letters exude a "Wow, can you believe I did this!?" feeling. Jerry Ross took a Purdue sticker with him on his first flight Nov. 26, 1985. Now, it's framed and on the wall in the museum's Astronaut Gallery, next to Mr. Ross' uniformed picture.

Mr. Gariano wasn't such a big space fan when he and his family moved to New Mexico in 1971 from New Jersey.

About 27 percent of his body was burned from being trapped on a tractor in a forest fire, and he didn't know what he was going to do.

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