There is a repository for life-size artifacts of the U.S. and international space program and it's not in Florida. It's in Wisconsin Dells. Imagine that!
The Tommy Bartlett Exploratory - Interactive Science Center, an attraction with enough hands-on experiments, games and gizmos to satisfy any curious kid, continues to build up its reputation as a place to plunge into space, figuratively of course. It started in 1997, when late owner Tommy Bartlett indulged his fascination with space travel by acquiring an authentic Russian Space Station MIR core module. The deal was brokered by current owner, Tom Diehl.
The 43-foot MIR was couriered to the Dells directly from a Moscow museum. It's one of only three manufactured by the Russians and the only one open for public viewing. Visitors to the Exploratory can step inside, but be prepared -- the module is tipped at an angle to simulate space travel and it may play games with your equilibrium. The MIR program is credited with paving the way for the current International Space Station endeavors.
Then last year, Diehl jumped at the chance to acquire a full-size replica of the Mercury Space Capsule, a piece of hardware that represents the United States' first manned spaceship of nearly 50 years ago and is memorialized in the book and the movie The Right Stuff. The replica capsule had been built for the Kennedy Space Center, but when plans to display it there changed, the Tommy Bartlett Exploratory gladly stepped in. It is faithful to the real deal, having been constructed from NASA blueprints. You're sure to be surprised at just how compact it is -- a mere 6-feet 10-inches long by 6-feet 2 ½-inches in diameter. Its main function was to shield astronauts from the extreme heat experienced during re-entry into the earth's atmosphere.
In the same area where the MIR and Mercury now float, you'll also find a replica of Sputnik I, the first satellite in space, and other space memorabilia. And you may also see Mark Schilling, tour guide and a bit of a space expert himself, thanks to his 37-year career at Tommy Bartlett's. "I grew up with this, watching those big moments of space exploration on a black-and-white TV in the school hallway," said Shilling. "Today's school groups might consider it more like a Model T, but I still get excited thinking about it."
Shilling confessed that, when he was little, he would have liked to have gone into space. "Not anymore," he said. "Having helped with this exhibit and the detailed timeline of events, I understand the reality of just how challenging it is."
Trivia: Among the original Mercury Seven astronauts was Donald "Deke" Slayton, who grew up in Sparta, Wisconsin. While a heart condition grounded him from Mercury flights, he did make it into space in 1975 as part of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project that marked the first meeting in space between American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts.
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