Experiencing space flight on the ground in Midwest

After Columbia tragedy, visitors learn what it means to be an astronaut

Destination: Kansas

February 23, 2003|By Dan Leeth | Dan Leeth,Special to the Sun

The photo of a space shuttle launch filled the screen, its powerful exhaust ricocheting from the ground in a billowing cloud of smoke and vapor. Tons of metal lifted skyward. Although the scene looked familiar, one item in the photo was clearly different. The external fuel tank, the blimp-like bulk to which orbiter and boosters clung, was not its usual rusty-orange color.

"For the first two launches, they painted the tank white," explained instructor Daniel Bateman. "You're looking at STS-1, the initial flight of the first space shuttle, Columbia."

Little did we know that in less than a day, the 20 of us attending the Adult Astronaut Adventure at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center would see the final images of that same spacecraft.

Located in Hutchinson, Kan., 55 miles northwest of Wichita, the cosmosphere is one of America's leading institutions devoted to space flight. Within its walls resides the largest assortment of American astronautic artifacts outside of the Smithsonian Institution and the greatest collection of Soviet space hardware this side of Moscow.

The museum began in the early 1960s when Patricia Carey, a local civic leader, decided that her part of the Heartland needed a planetarium. She bought a used star projector and set up shop in a chicken coop on the Kansas State Fairgrounds. Four years later, the facility moved to the campus of Hutchinson Community College.

The project proved popular, and by the mid-1970s, the planetarium's board wanted to expand by building a museum. Through a quirk of fate, Carey called her friend, Max Ary, who was the director of a planetarium in Fort Worth. He also served on a committee that was desperately trying to find a place for obsolete space hardware. Soon, an assortment of vehicles that were built to fly the cosmos ultimately found space on the Kansas plains.

"Our mission is to preserve and share the history of space exploration with the public, and to get people excited about the future of space travel," says spokeswoman Karen Siebert.

Two days in space

To achieve the latter, they sponsor educational programs ranging from "Spaced-Out Sleepovers" for younger students to Elderhostel camps for seniors. Those of us falling between grade school and gray have the Adult Astronaut Adventure. The program features two days crammed with briefings, tours and training sessions on simulators similar to those NASA uses. The difference between us and the pros is that we got polo shirts, not flight suits, to wear.

After learning insider details of the space shuttle, we received a private tour of the museum. Through its galleries, we followed the history of rocketry and space flight, from Nazi V2s to Russia's Sputnik. Continuing past America's Mercury and Gemini capsules and their Soviet Vostok and Voskhod counterparts, we entered the Apollo room.

There stood the heat-scarred command module of Apollo 13, the ill-fated moon mission commemorated in the Tom Hanks movie of the same name. An exploding fuel cell nearly doomed the three astronauts onboard, but through ingenuity and the perseverance of capsule and ground crews, the trio returned safely to earth. It remains America's most successful space failure.

"This is an example of why we started this place," says planetarium director Tom Holcomb. "Apollo 13 was at an airport in Paris. We recovered it, tracked down 80,000 pieces and did the restoration here on-site."

We examined the lunar lander mockup that once served as a backdrop for Walter Cronkite news broadcasts, then exited past a representation of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz space docking. The Apollo has faded into history, but the Soyuz is still in use today. Since it serves as the escape vehicle for the International Space Station, American astronauts must learn to fly it. After lunch, we got to sit in NASA's original Soyuz trainer.

Crawling in, I realized that claustrophobia is not an option for space travelers. This vehicle, the pride of Russian spacecraft, forces three adults to sit in quarters as cramped as the back seat of a Yugo, but with less legroom. In this space-free spaceship, astronauts, cosmonauts and businessmen buying $20 million flights must sit with their knees up for 14 hours or more. In comparison, a neighboring Apollo trainer felt like flying first class. All we needed was for a flight attendant to serve glasses of Tang.

Tragedy in the sky

Other sessions let us practice shuttle landings in a simulator, perform stress-reaction tests in an inverted pod and flip head-over-heels in three-axis rotating rings.

The finale was the centrifuge. Whirling 57 revolutions per minute, the machine simulates forces greater than three times that of earthly gravity, about the same as astronauts experience during shuttle liftoffs. It's enough force to shift fluids in the brain and make stomachs queasy.

"Don't move your head," fellow student Mark Annis warned, staggering from his ride.

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