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Hutchinson Kansas Museums: Underground Salt Mine Museum and Cosmosphere and Space Center

Located near the Arkansas River, the south central Kansas town of Hutchinson is known for multiple downtown antiques shops and hosts the annual 10-day Kansas State Fair. But it's also the home of two highly unusual museums that offer some great entertainment.

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An Underground Adventure: Kansas Underground Salt Museum -- Strataca

Metal jostles and groans as a double-decker hoist "elevator" drops 650 feet below the Kansas prairie. After a breathtaking 90 seconds, the hoist stops in a place where the walls are made of salt, the air stands still, and hard hats are required. This is the Kansas Underground Salt Museum which showcases a world that has existed for 275-million years.

Surrounded by rock, without any natural light, Hutchinson's salt mine Strataca was a little spooky but fascination overcame my hesitation. In fact, when we visited the cavernous Great Room we were actually standing amid what was once the ancient Permian Sea.

We touched a 6,000 pound salt block and ran our hands through an eight-foot-long trough filled with smooth Permian mud, coarse road salt and more. We also rode a Tram on a 'Dark Ride' guided tour, past gorgeous rock formations such as re-crystallized salt that looked like a waterfall. Light shone as we reached other displays that included old mining equipment. We also learned about air circulation in the mine and 'red salt'.

Because underground vaults and a storage gallery within the mine offer constant temperature and humidity, and high security, they're a wonderful spot to store memorabilia that requires very careful handling. We visited a mock version of this area, which stores original negatives of such iconic movies as Gone with the Wind, along with valuable documents from all 50 states and many other countries. We also enjoyed seeing movie costumes from Batman and The Matrix, to name a few. Special events take place in the mine throughout the year.

Upstairs, the Fluid Inclusion Exhibit displays a 250-million-year-old live bacterial specimen found by three scientists inside a salt crystal, which likely formed before the time of the dinosaurs. The museum also recently acquired a 1919 GE Engine No. 2, which transported salt from the Carey Salt Mine for four decades. Today, the 60,000 pound equipment occupies a flatbed trailer on museum grounds, and is one of only three that were ever built. Museum officials plan to fully restore the massive workhorse.

This one-of-a-kind facility has hosted visitors from all 50 states and 33 foreign countries. Expansions of the original museum added the 'A Miner's Life' exhibit, and a 'Salt Safari' underground hike, and several more intriguing experiences.

Space & Military History at Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center

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Who would have guessed that you could find a replica of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and the Apollo 13 command module under a single roof in the midsection of Kansas? Or that such an impressive museum grew from a tiny planetarium located on the Kansas State Fairgrounds? At the nation's second largest space display - the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center visitors can also view live demonstrations that have been recreated from the 1930s work of Dr. Robert Goddard, whom many people consider the father of modern rocketry.

A Smithsonian-affiliated museum, the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center was launched in 1980, including a Hall of Space Museum and one of this country's earliest OMNIMAX theaters. Seventeen years later, the facility grew to 105,000 square feet and the Hall of Space Museum tripled in size. This Midwestern visitor destination has become one of the world's most comprehensive space museums and a popular U.S. tourist attraction.

Kansas' state motto, Ad Astra per Aspera -- To the Stars Through Difficulties, tops an enormous and stunning three-panel stained glass window near the entrance, depicting an astronaut, a space vehicle and a cloud-laced sky.

Several spacecraft displayed at this museum have actually been flown in space, including the Gemini X and the Apollo 13 vehicles. After its 1999 recovery from the ocean floor, the Cosmosphere restored and displays the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft from the Mercury space program, flown by Virgil "Gus" Grissom. A spindly-legged model of a Sputnik vehicle and a large moon rock collected after the Apollo 11 was first to reach the moon were also on display.

Perhaps the most chilling display -- the Cold War Gallery -- depicts a non-biased view of mankind's "Space Race." A quote from Joseph Stalin, reads: "The Americans may think their stealing of the [V2] rockets and scientists will give them preeminence over our nation. The Soviet people have survived much in our history. We will again prove what we are made of."

The Cosmosphere also displays the only known color photo of the Trinity explosion in the New Mexico desert, which was launched on July 16, 1945, as the world entered the nuclear age; and the largest display of Russian artifacts associated with space, located outside of Moscow.

For less than $20, the All-Day Mission Pass was a real bargain. It included general museum admission plus tickets for the Carey Digital Dome Theater documentary. Depending on when you visit, the documentary may range from The Last Reef -- Cities Beneath the Sea to Flying Monsters (When Dinosaurs Walked the Earth, Monsters Ruled the Skies).

Our all-day pass also included a tour of the sky during a 45-minute show, (offered once or twice each day), inside the intimate Justice Planetarium. We became completely absorbed by Night Sky Live. Finally, the pass provided entry to Dr. Goddard's Lab, where a mock scientist created fireballs that ended in miniature explosions while demonstrating Goddard's early experiments with liquid fueled rockets. It was 45-minutes of surprise that we talked about for a long time afterwards.

Space and history buffs will love the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. There's also plenty to see and do for anyone with a healthy curiosity and a sense of wonder.

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Lisa Waterman Gray is a freelance writer and photographer, who has crafted thousands of stories and reviews for national, regional, and local print and online publications. Widely published in Greater Kansas City, Kansas and Missouri, she specializes in travel and food topics, and also writes human interest, health, and business stories. She was previously an editor for Kansas City Homes & Gardens and The Sun. The Countryman Press/W.W. Norton released Lisa's first national book, An Explorer's Guide: Kansas, in June 2011.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: August 7, 2016



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