June 4, 1995

Space Museum Takes Off In New Mexico What Started As A ‘Dressed-Up Water Tank’ Has Developed Into A Space Memorabilia Extravaganza

Lisa Thatcher Kresl Dallas Morning News
 

No, you’re not spacing out. That is indeed a model of the shuttle Challenger, set for liftoff on the side of the highway. It’s right next to the space mural/water tank and the shuttle-shaped pond, just down the road from the Star Wars Deli.

See the sign that says “free” and you just have to stop.

The Space Murals Inc. museum and gift shop may not be in any guidebook, but it has been stopping traffic ever since 1991, when Lou Gariano got the idea to dress up his steel water tank on U.S. Highway 70, about 12 miles northeast of Las Cruces.

People saw the artist painting images of the first spacewalk, Skylab and the Challenger blastoff, among other things, and stopped to find out more. “Do you have extra information?” they’d ask, and, “What about photos?” So Lou got some. He wrote to 188 astronauts requesting photographs and memorabilia. About 110 responded, and he opened a oneroom museum and gift shop next to the water tank.

But Lou didn’t stop there. He arranged to borrow items from the Space Center in nearby Alamogordo. He asked for loans from space junkies’ personal collections. He even hit up regular folk for souvenirs and collectibles.

When a space agency or company wanted to toss something as junk, Lou took it. And what Lou couldn’t get, he built himself.

Since he began work on the museum in June 1993, he has built an addition and set up a minipark out back. At the dedication Oct. 3, 1994, the extension was unfinished so he just hung the displays on Sheetrock.

Although the exhibits are still evolving, people just can’t get enough of what Lou has assembled.

“We’re calling it ‘The People’s Museum’ because people have donated 88 percent of the items,” says Lou, 62. “One guy brought over 1,100 pictures himself. This building isn’t going to be big enough in another six months.”

Make your way up the front walk and you can tell this is not like most other museums. “Welcome” is spelled out in brick-red and white rocks near the entrance and the girl behind the counter greets you as if you were a weekend house guest.

Get past the shuttle erasers and space magnets for sale in the gift shop and you’ll find: A mannequin modeling “shuttle in-flight coveralls.”

Aerial photographs of Merritt Island, Fla., in 1967.

A couple of space shuttle heating tiles.

Front pages of the Chicago Tribune and Pennsylvania’s Reading Eagle, when space exploration made the headlines.

Pictures of astronauts, famous and not, along with autographs and patches from some of their missions.

Photographs representing every branch of the military.

A poster about black holes.

A video showing astronauts floating in weightlessness and rockets bursting into the sky.

A wreath in memory of the Challenger crew and a memorial poem about them in a floral frame.

Exit through the back door and take the bridge over the shuttleshaped pond and there’s more - old rockets, missiles and engines. A guidebook details each of the historic moments on the tank mural: the X-15, which set new altitude and speed records; the 1975 U.S. and Russia hookup in space; the Columbia STS-3’s 1982 landing at White Sands, N.M.; the space program’s first fatal accident …

“At first I thought, ‘Who would be interested in 20- or 30-year-old stuff?’ ” says Lou. “I was dead wrong. Elderly people come in here and spend hours. I had one woman come in with her grandson. She was here 45 minutes and said, ‘I’ll be back, but without my grandson.’

“People remember when all of this happened,” he says. “Some were even involved with it at the time.”

Spend an afternoon at The People’s Museum and it feels as though you’re at some cosmic-crazed collector’s house, peeking at his prize finds.

You may be.

“People come and say, ‘I have finally found a place to put my stuff,”’ says Lou. “Some worked for a company, brought stuff home and put it in a shoe box, but now it’s declassified and they want to do something with it.”

The displays put the exclamation point back into space exploration. “These boots walked on the moon!” reads the handwritten sign next to a pair of boots, one tipped over so you can see the dirt on the sole.

Lou is showing off the display he put up the day before - some photos of what may be space debris - then describes his latest acquisition, a 45-rpm record. “It’s John Glenn talking to mission control,” says Lou, “and John Glenn signed it!” Soon everyone in the museum is talking and remembering when.

Even the astronauts who respond to Lou’s letters exude a “Wow, can you believe I did this!?” feeling. Jerry Ross took a Purdue sticker with him on his first flight Nov. 26, 1985. Now, it’s framed and on the wall in the museum’s “Astronaut Gallery,” next to Ross’ uniformed picture.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Know before you go Getting there: Space Murals Inc. Museum and Gift Shop (P.O. Box 243, 15450 Highway 70 East, Organ, N.M. 88052) is about 12 miles northeast of Las Cruces off U.S. Highway 70, across from the turnoff for NASA’s White Sands Test Facility. Look for the “Space murals, only .0000000001 light years ahead” billboard.

More information: The museum is open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays, and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays. Free admission. Complimentary coffee and tea. Call (505) 382-0977.

Other attractions: The Space Center in Alamogordo (50 miles northeast of Space Murals Inc.) features the International Space Hall of Fame, Tombaugh Space Theater with daily shows, Stapp Air and Space Park and the Astronaut Memorial Garden dedicated to Challenger astronauts. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in winter. Combination tickets to the space hall and theater are $5.25 ($3.50 for children and seniors; children under 5 free). Family discount tickets are $15.50. Call 1-800-545-4021 or (505) 437-2840. The White Sands Missile Range Museum (15 miles from Space Murals Inc.; 27 miles from Las Cruces) highlights NASA activities at the range from the early ‘60s to the present, as well as exhibits on atomic and nuclear effects testing. Open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. The missile park, showcasing all missiles tested at the range, is open daily. Enter the base at the El Paso or Las Cruces gate and tell the guard you are going to visit the museum or missile park. Free admission. Call (505) 678-5729. National Solar Observatory at Sunspot (65 miles northeast of Space Murals Inc.) offers guided tours Saturdays at 2 p.m., May through October. Self-guided tours around three large telescopes can be taken daily, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. A new visitors center is scheduled to open spring 1996. Free admission. Call (505) 434-1390.

This sidebar appeared with the story: Know before you go Getting there: Space Murals Inc. Museum and Gift Shop (P.O. Box 243, 15450 Highway 70 East, Organ, N.M. 88052) is about 12 miles northeast of Las Cruces off U.S. Highway 70, across from the turnoff for NASA’s White Sands Test Facility. Look for the “Space murals, only .0000000001 light years ahead” billboard.

More information: The museum is open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays, and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays. Free admission. Complimentary coffee and tea. Call (505) 382-0977.

Other attractions: The Space Center in Alamogordo (50 miles northeast of Space Murals Inc.) features the International Space Hall of Fame, Tombaugh Space Theater with daily shows, Stapp Air and Space Park and the Astronaut Memorial Garden dedicated to Challenger astronauts. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in winter. Combination tickets to the space hall and theater are $5.25 ($3.50 for children and seniors; children under 5 free). Family discount tickets are $15.50. Call 1-800-545-4021 or (505) 437-2840. The White Sands Missile Range Museum (15 miles from Space Murals Inc.; 27 miles from Las Cruces) highlights NASA activities at the range from the early ‘60s to the present, as well as exhibits on atomic and nuclear effects testing. Open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. The missile park, showcasing all missiles tested at the range, is open daily. Enter the base at the El Paso or Las Cruces gate and tell the guard you are going to visit the museum or missile park. Free admission. Call (505) 678-5729. National Solar Observatory at Sunspot (65 miles northeast of Space Murals Inc.) offers guided tours Saturdays at 2 p.m., May through October. Self-guided tours around three large telescopes can be taken daily, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. A new visitors center is scheduled to open spring 1996. Free admission. Call (505) 434-1390.


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