An Air Zoo View of Space

By Scott Spangler on November 15th, 2021

In introducing the Air Zoo Aerospace & Science Experience, its president, Troy Thrash said it was purposely designed “to be a different environment for an air and space museum.” There is no better example of this than the exhibit focused on the lunar landing of Apollo 11 in 1969. Instead of telling the story with space hardware, the Air Zoo connects to the environment in which we all (at least all of us who were sentient beings then) shared in the experience, on TV in our living rooms.

Turning the corner to the exhibit, with its shag carpeting, cathode cabinet television on which Neil Armstrong made that first step for a man in an endless loop, and the fiberglass TV tray where many of us ate many a night, was a time traveling gut punch that stopped me in my tracks. It revived my mom and dad and shaved the decades of life from memory and put me rapt and cross-legged on the floor with my sister. Short of looking at Michael Collins’ lunar station at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, this is the most important Apollo exhibit I’ve ever seen because it allows people to relate to a moment in history personally and physically.

It’s a theme that continues through this section of the Air Zoo. Gort, the robot enforcer from one of my favorite science fiction films, 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Robby the Robot, who first appeared in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet and made subsequent appearances in other films and TV shows, including Lost in Space, flank the portal to Alien Worlds and Androids. The Air Zoo rented the traveling exhibit in 2015, said Thrash, and set it up to expand the space exhibit and tell the story of planetary space exploration beyond the shuttle and space station. The exhibit’s owner retired it in 2019, and Kalamazoo is its permanent home.

Building on the theme of robotics and exploration of space, visitors meet other pop icons like C3PO, R2D2, and BB8, “and no discussion of exoskeletons would be complete without Iron Man,” said Thrash. Standing in testament to the possibility of other life forms is the eponymous Alien, which helps tell the story of the microbiome. “It’s a different way for kids to connect with science.”

But this section of the Air Zoo has not forsaken the hardware geek. There are wheels from several different Mars rovers, and capsules from Projects Mercury and Gemini. First, there is a Gemini crew trainer, a fixed spacecraft procedures simulator. The orange and white El KaBong is a boilerplate Gemini capsule that NASA used in tests of the Para-Sail Program, a Rogallo wing that replaced the traditional parachutes used to slow the final descent. “It is a NASA artifact, and it was in pretty bad shape” Thrash said. “NASA said if you want to restore it, you can display it here.”

The Air Zoo’s space has its own moon rock, from Apollo 15. But turning to the living room exhibit, this is “my favorite space,” Thrash said, and they christened it on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. “Everything here was donated by someone locally—this was in my house when Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon. It’s really cool to see grandparents come and sit on the couch and tell their grandkids this is where I was when it happened, watching it on TV.”

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