HUTCHINSON — Caitlin McLean, a 13-year-old from Pottawatomie County, has been bitten by the space bug.
“There is this transportation thing that you can go into space for about eight minutes — it’s like being in space,” Caitlin said. “I heard about that and thought if I ever get that kind of money, I’m going to do it.”
Earlier this month, Caitlin rode the old-fashioned way — by school bus — three hours from her school in Randolph to visit the Kansas Cosmosphere for the first time. It got her mind to whirling about the possibilities. Now, she wants to be a genetic scientist.
“They had stuff that was real — not just models, but real stuff,” she said. “They didn’t just do the boring textbook stuff. They made it futuristic and colorful, and they grabbed my attention.”
The Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, which turns 50 this year, has always been about the future. Even its past is based on the dreams of what the future could be.
And, its future, Cosmosphere officials say, is about keeping dreams like Caitlin McLean’s alive.
“The (nation’s) space program is ending and that’s what makes what we do here even more important,” said Dianne Blick, the Cosmosphere’s director of development. “Our mission is preserving history and inspiring future space exploration.
“Kids are still excited by astronauts. I think they always will be. They come here excited.”
Research has shown that by the time students enter the second grade, their path in life is already beginning to be established.
“We can give them the opportunity to get on a science path early,” Blick said. “It’s all about connecting the dots with kids for science and showing them what they can do with it.”
On Saturday, the Cosmosphere will celebrate its 50th birthday. The evening will be spent paying tribute to founder Patty Carey, who died in 2003.
Her vision helped build the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center into one of the world’s premier space museums with more than 15,000 artifacts. Only the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., has a larger collection of U.S. space artifacts.
There will be a fundraiser Saturday evening, and Apollo and space shuttle astronauts will be on hand to celebrate.
It’s a long way from how the vision began.
Building a lasting dream
As a young girl, Patty Brooks was fascinated by astronomy. By the time she married Howard J. “Jake” Carey Jr. — a member of Hutchinson’s Carey Salt family — in 1941, she had visited almost every planetarium in the world.
“She did something in her time that is a powerful story for young women today,” Blick said. “She knew how to network. It wasn’t done by women in the 1960s. Men did it.
“But she grew up knowing how to do that. She grew up in wealth, married wealth, went to a good school and then came to Hutchinson. They say that under pressure, people can do extraordinary things. She had the ability to grasp the moment and do something about it.”
That’s how the dream for the planetarium began.
In 1962, the planetarium in Oklahoma City was planning to remodel and upgrade its equipment. Officials there, friends of Patty Carey, wanted to know whether she would like to buy their old star projector.
It was a Friday. She had until Monday to raise $7,200 — or the projector would be sold to someone else.
Carey not only came up with the money but opened the Hutchinson Planetarium on Dec. 2, 1962, in the poultry building on the Kansas State Fairgrounds. There was no heat in the building, which was quickly named “the chicken coop.”
In 1997, on the planetarium’s 35th anniversary, Carey told The Eagle that many of the people she called that weekend in hopes of raising the $7,200 didn’t even know what a planetarium was.
“They thought it was a place where you grow plants,” Carey said. “Or, ‘Is that a place for demented people?’ ”
The planetarium soon moved to the new arts and sciences building at Hutchinson Community College. One of her first hires was Max Ary, a student at the college. The two instantly clicked.
And, for the next four decades, the two made an incredible team as they traveled the world collecting artifacts for a space museum. When the Apollo lunar missions wound down and thousands of space artifacts were being sent to the junk heap in Texas, the two collected space suits, rockets and everything else.
At first it was just American space memorabilia. Then, it turned worldwide to include Soviet and Russian space artifacts. They collected everything.
Among the Cosmosphere’s 15,000 artifacts is the original Apollo 13 capsule and the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft, restored at the Cosmosphere in 1999 and 2000. The spacecraft, piloted by Gus Grissom in July 1961, sank in the Atlantic Ocean minutes after splashdown when a hatch blew open.
The museum also has manned and unmanned Soviet spacecraft, a nuclear Redstone warhead, engineering models for Sputnik I and II, and one of the few remaining V-2 missiles in existence.
Its Space Center SpaceWorks division has become a world leader in space artifact restoration and replication. The division has restored or replicated hundreds of artifacts for organizations such as the National Air and Space Museum and NASA. SpaceWorks has created replicas in movies such as “Apollo 13” and Tom Hanks’ HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon.”
The Cosmosphere’s future
Right now, the Cosmosphere is in transition.
It has moved past the scandal involving Ary, who was convicted in 2005 on federal charges that involved stealing and selling museum artifacts.
It currently is searching for a new executive director to replace Chris Orwell, who resigned in November. It expects to make an announcement in the next few weeks.
Dick Hollowell has been acting as the interim president.
“Our primary concentration is to re-establish the core of the museum and make sure we maintain the image we have today,” Hollowell said.
The short-term goals, Blick said, are to paint the roof, switch the IMAX projector to digital, upgrade the planetarium and continue to build the type of relationships that have made the Cosmosphere stand out in the world.
The long-term goals have yet to be determined.
The Cosmosphere’s continuing mission is to inspire – even in a time when the nation’s focus is shifting away from space.
“We have no idea where space is going,” said Tom Holcomb, the Cosmosphere’s director of education. “… We could pivot to aviation, but everybody and their brother does aviation.
“Space is what makes us unique. The history we have will always be pertinent. We are ready to see what’s next.”