"The town I lived in was 1,100 people. This was cutting edge! This was exciting! This was technology at its height! The thing I remember the most about it, everybody was quiet." Mullins says he could hear every word of the broadcast from Cape Canaveral, relaying the details of Shepard's fourteen-minute ride aboard Freedom 7. A nine-year-old science-fiction junkie, Earl was awestruck: "All of a sudden, it's becoming fact."

Growing up on a dairy farm, he'd found a 50-gallon steel drum that he pretended was a space capsule, from which he would fly his own "missions." He also collected spent rifle cartridges because they looked like rockets. "I just wanted to explore, man, I just wanted to be out there, in space. The moon wasn't even enough for me."

For the next two years, NASA launched a new Mercury flight every few months, all of which kept Mullins glued to the television. "My aunts and uncles and sisters and brothers — and everybody that knew me — would bring me newspapers and clippings," Mullins says. "Every mission was a milestone."

An astronaut's glove from the Soviet space program.
Jennifer Silverberg
An astronaut's glove from the Soviet space program.
Jennifer Silverberg

Even Echo 1, NASA's first communications satellite, captivated him. A chubby kid with a talent for building model rockets, he'd lay back in the grass at dusk and watch the giant metallic balloon, brighter than most stars, glide across the horizon. "It was just a point of light in the sky," says Mullins. "Everybody else would go in, and I'd wait for it to come around again. It was fascinating to me. I wanted to know how it worked."

Mullins aspired to a career in aerospace engineering, but by the time he graduated from high school in Farmington, he knew there wasn't enough money. The youngest of seven brothers and sisters, he and his mother were on their own after his parents' divorce. With higher education out of reach, Mullins took a two-year degree from Mineral Area College in St. Francois County.

Mullins grew disillusioned with NASA after the space shuttle Challenger exploded on the morning of January 28, 1986, killing its crew of seven just 73 seconds after liftoff. "I didn't want to believe it," says Mullins, who later pored over 450 pages of the damning congressional report on the accident. "It angered me. It was like those guys had been failed. It was a black eye. We had screwed up. Instead of being a technological giant, we got clobbered."

His daughter Monica, who was in elementary school at the time, remembers her dad's grief. "He was devastated," she says. "It was like he lost part of his family."

As one might expect, Mullins has watched virtually every space-related movie and television special released in the past twenty years. Among his favorites are Ron Howard's Apollo 13 and "From the Earth to the Moon," a Tom Hanks miniseries about the Apollo project. The museum sells copies of the movie October Sky, the true story of Homer Hickam, a coal miner's son-turned-rocketeer. But don't expect to find a copy of The Right Stuff.

Tom Wolfe's 1979 bestseller and the 1983 film adaptation focused on the macho fighter-pilot culture of this country's first astronauts. Mullins does not dispute that his heroes were hard-drinking, fast-driving womanizers. "These guys weren't choir boys," he says.

He does have one major objection, and that's the way Wolfe portrayed Gus Grissom, America's second man in space. It was Grissom's suborbital flight on July 21, 1961, that ended badly, with his capsule sinking in the Atlantic — and him nearly drowning — because the escape hatch blew open before a waiting helicopter could lift the bobbing pod from the water. The way NASA engineers saw it, Wolfe wrote, "Grissom had just screwed the pooch!"

"People were led to believe that he was a high-strung whiner that failed his mission because he lost his spacecraft," Mullins complains. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Mullins has become friends with Grissom's younger brother Lowell. A 74-year-old McDonnell Douglas retiree who lives in O'Fallon, Missouri, Lowell Grissom has lent both moral support and credibility to the museum project. In fact, he invited Mullins to Cape Canaveral in January 2007 for a memorial service marking the 40th anniversary of the flash fire that killed Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. The Apollo 1 crew had been training for a moon mission in the command module atop a Saturn rocket when the control room heard the panicked cry, "Fire in the cockpit!"

Over the years, Earl Mullins has collected more than 400 model planes, learned to scuba dive and taught himself how to make knives. None of these hobbies, though, has proved anywhere near as fascinating as space.

The silver-bearded Mullins began in earnest to acquire space memorabilia fifteen years ago, and it wasn't long before his 100-year-old Bonne Terre home brimmed with the sacred objects. He still has the capsule-shaped pencil sharpener that he won at a carnival as a kid in Vienna, as well as the reel-to-reel tape of Walter Cronkite broadcasting the moon landing on July 20, 1969.

The size of the collection, half of which remains in storage, came as a surprise to his daughter Monica. "I never dreamed he had that much stuff tucked away," she says. "I said, 'What are you going to do with all this stuff?'"

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