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Stepping from the quiet streets of Bonne Terre into Earl Mullins' space museum is like bringing one's eye to a telescope and being struck dizzy with stars. A rocket engine, two feet of sleek metal tubes and chambers, sits on a pedestal near the front door. It's the real deal, an LR-64 that delivers 1,000 pounds of thrust. To the right of it reclines a wooden model of the F-86 Saber jet built by Mercury astronaut Virgil "Gus" Grissom, not far from the life-size statue of a space traveler's puffy white suit.
In this old lead-mining town an hour's drive south of St. Louis, Mullins has created this array of rockets, ray guns and fire-proof beta cloth. A total 657 items, nearly all culled from his personal collection, fill a series of miniature exhibits. The tour begins with a display of toy space guns, including a 1938 Buck Rogers Atomic Pistol, before moving on to items depicting Russia and America's feverish efforts to reach the heavens first. Mullins' prized gems include a Mercury flight-operations manual signed by Scott Carpenter, one of the original astronauts, and a medallion-size piece of the heat shield from the command module of Apollo 8, which orbited the moon on Christmas Eve in 1968.
With a wide grin creasing his round face, Mullins is eager to share. "We're just trying to introduce the populace to the excitement and necessity of space exploration," he says.
A 56-year-old manager at a plastics plant in Arnold, Mullins can't recall a weekend away from the space museum since he opened it to the public in October 2005. Now, with the help of volunteers, the lights are on Friday through Monday.
Most of the walk-in traffic Mullins sees comes from the nearby Bonne Terre Mine, which was the world's foremost producer of lead at the turn of the 20th century. The owners of West End Diving in Bridgeton purchased the mine in 1980 and turned the expansive cavern into a tourist attraction. Today it offers underground boat rides and scuba diving in a "billion-gallon lake."
On a Saturday afternoon last month, a couple from Hermann stops at the space museum, a small brick building that formerly housed the mine company's utility office, to pick up a brochure for a possible return visit with their kids. Mullins isn't about to let them go, though, without talking up future plans for the museum. "Hopefully, one of these days this will be free," he says by way of apology for the admission price: $5 for adults, $3 for kids.
Soon, Mullins adds, the exhibits will move next door to a facility twice as big, where he and his boosters hope to build a theater. "What we're going to try to do in the theater is hook up some Godzilla subwoofers, so when we show a movie, you're going to get that feeling of what it's like to be near a launch," he says.
The ambitious plans take the Hermann man by surprise. "You wouldn't expect it in the little town of Bonne Terre," he remarks.
"I can't tell you how many times I hear that," Mullins replies with the folksy accent that hints at his southern Illinois upbringing. "Why Bonne Terre? Well, that's where I live. Besides, a lot of people will never have a chance to see this stuff. They'll have to travel too far."
Mullins' visitor ogles a small-scale model of SpaceShipOne that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004, as he mentions that he'd like to someday take his son to Cape Canaveral to witness a shuttle launch. Hearing this, Mullins enthuses, "Let me show you something real quick, kind of the next best thing to a launch."
He disappears behind the partition wall and heads into the main gallery. He returns hefting a 30-pound bolt. "It's one of eight bolts that hold the shuttle to the pad before it takes off," he explains. "They're made out of Inconel; that has a lot of nickel in it. They cost about $3,000 apiece."
The revelation sparks a long show-and-tell about the bolt. Having quizzed an engineer about what would happen if the nuts failed to come loose, Mullins relays that they're no match for the rocket power behind the shuttle. "Six and a half million pounds of thrust," he concludes in an admiring tone.
Mullins is fired up about his mission. "I really want to encourage people's interest in this. Space exploration is very important. It's vital right now." Taking his inspiration from the era led by John F. Kennedy's challenge to land a man on the moon before the end of 1960s, Mullins sees no limit to what he can accomplish with his homegrown museum.
"I want to create a nation of dreamers again. We were dreamers when we went to the moon."
On the morning of May 5, 1961, a nation held its collective breath as Alan Shepard prepared to be hurled into space atop a Redstone rocket. Mullins still remembers it all so vividly, how he and his fellow classmates in Vienna, Illinois, were taken to the school gym to witness on black-and-white TV the first American to travel into space.