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Ad Astra Per Aspera - A Review of the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, KS


A stairwell across from a cafe. At the top is a large stained glass portrait of an astronaught in front of various space vignettes.
The entrance to the museum proper, across from the Cosmosphere Cafe. Image by the author.

Recently, I had family come into town. To celebrate that, and to celebrate the last weekend of summer before my son started school again, we went to the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, KS. We'd been talking about it for ages; my work as a science fiction writer and my partner's love of aeronautics, combined with our son's enthusiasm for all things science-related, made this a perfect getaway for our family.


I'm so glad we finally got to make the trip because it was absolutely beautiful and chock-full of exciting scientific information and artifacts of the space exploration age! We spent hours browsing around, exploring the exhibits, and learning all about the space race and modern space exploration technology. We even got lunch at the cafe!


If you're planning a trip out to Hutchinson, and you're considering adding the Cosmosphere to your agenda, here's what you need to know.


What is the Cosmosphere?

The Cosmosphere, as the name might suggest, is a museum (technically a science center) dedicated to human exploration in space. It's an affiliate of the Smithsonian, meaning that the museum staff works in close collaboration with one of the largest and most well-known museums in the world to bring you exciting, educational, and authentic exhibits from all over the world. Their main focus is on the space race between the United States and Russia (formerly the USSR) in the 1960s, though they do have memorabilia and models from modern missions run by NASA.


The science center got its start in 1962 when founder Patty Carey opened Hutchinson's Theatre of the Skies as a planetarium. This small operation ran shows displaying stars and planets inside of a poultry barn on the Kansas State Fairgrounds. They moved into their own permanent building in 1966 and received their first major artifact from the Smithsonian - the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project command module trainer - in 1976. Their SpaceWorks program, which has been used in the production of movies and museum replicas as an industry standard, came about in 1979 so that by 1980, the planetarium had gained so much attention, traffic, and general success that it converted into a fully-fledged museum and changed its name to the Kansas Cosmosphere and Discovery Center. This was later simplified to just The Cosmosphere.


A museum gallery fully of artifacts from the Space Race, including a massive model of a Russian command module and flight suit.
The Cold War Gallery. Image by the author.

What to See at the Cosmosphere

The Cosmosphere is home to a varied collection of artifacts from the history of space exploration in the United States and Russia, all of which are absolutely fascinating and range from actual sections of the Berlin Wall to recovered spacecraft and more.


One of my favorite exhibits was a scale model of the International Space Station. The model clearly depicted the station as it stands right now, down to markings along the outside and the various solar panels, which, lit by the spotlights in the room, glittered in a rainbow of colors that made the whole thing feel like something out of a movie. It's hung from the ceiling in the Astronaut Experience Gallery and is surrounded by other artifacts from the ISS including food packets, clothing worn by the astronauts, computers used on the station, flight plans and maps, and many more fascinating things. Hilariously, it is also nearby a model of the station's toilets (would not want to use one of those!).


The other highlights of the tip included one of three extant White Rooms from the Apollo project in the Apollo Gallery, the recovered remains of the MA-1 capsule in the Sending Humans to Space Gallery, and the gorgeous SR-71 Blackbird on display in the entrance gallery (being a girl who grew up beside the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, GA, I appreciated the nostalgia this particular model of plane brought me).


There's also a flight simulator to try out if you're into high speeds and don't get motion sick easily, a planetarium with regular shows, a CosmoKids section with science experiments for children (my son loved the rocket design and testing station), a movie theater, and a cafe to round off the trip. I highly recommend the burgers!


A scale model of the International Space Station, lit by spotlights and hanging from the gallery ceiling.
A model of the International Space Station. Image by the author.

Conclusion

I may be biased, as a scifi writer, but I think space exploration is the single most impressive feat of human engineering and drive to explore and learn in history. Our species looked up at the stars for millennia, writing stories about them, adding them to our cultural mythos, and dreaming about what they might be made of, and we've somehow managed to turn those dreams into a reality where human beings have traveled beyond the bounds of our little blue planet and returned alive to tell the tale. There's something beautiful about our collective need to see and map a universe that is much bigger than we are, so I'm glad that there are places we can go to celebrate those achievements and hear the stories we worked so hard to make possible.


I cannot recommend enough visiting the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, KS. It's exactly the right blend of exciting and serious, awe-inspiring and realistic, beautiful and practical. The curators of this museum and learning center genuinely believe in the science and history they represent and do their best to ensure that it is accessible, interesting, and fun for everyone who visits, regardless of their age or existing familiarity with the material. Whether you're an astrophysicist or a small child who loves paper planes, there's bound to be something for you to love at the Cosmosphere.

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