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Mullins' museum began with a desire for even more space mementos. He wanted high-profile artifacts, like the suits astronauts actually wore in space, but they were too expensive for most collectors. "I knew there were items out there available for loan," he says. "I thought, well, if I couldn't own them, it would be cool to just be around them."
Mullins has a humble, homespun personality, though when it comes to museum business, he's one relentless promoter. He'll hit up anyone he thinks can help him, from town leaders to Gregg Maryniak, director of the Saint Louis Science Center's James S. McDonnell Planetarium. Initially some people didn't take him seriously. Janet Barton, for one, an ex-city council member and the city manager's wife, admits that she thought a space museum in Bonne Terre sounded silly. "I did not even go to the grand opening," she says. Now she's one of its main boosters. "It's fun to be around Earl," she says. "It's overwhelming. The stuff he can remember — I'm talking detailed information."
Maryniak ignored Mullins' e-mails for a year before he consented to a visit. "I didn't know what to expect in a little, teeny-weeny former lead-mining town," Maryniak says. "I was blown away."
Painstaking in his work, Mullins has woven his opus from peripheral collectibles, aircraft models and Life magazine covers. The crackly sounds of an astronaut contacting mission control fill the gallery devoted to the early space programs.
At the end of the narrow room, a soft light illuminates a one-sixth scale model of the Mercury capsule, built by McDonnell Douglas engineers. Press a button at the base of the display and the wooden model rotates, offering a complete view of its internal components.
Mullins pulls on a pair of white cotton gloves before handling one of his favorite pieces in the collection. He unlocks a section of a long glass case and pulls out a yellowed letter, written in July 1959 by a little-known astronaut named Henry Gordon. "I don't know if you've seen The Right Stuff or not?" he asks. Gordon wrote the letter while undergoing a medical evaluation at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, same as the Mercury astronauts.
Gordon was among the pilots the Air Force recruited to fly a space plane called the X-20 Dyna-Soar, short for Dynamic Soarer. Gordon wrote that it was a "much more interesting and fascinating concept than the Mercury program." He could not foresee that the military would scrap the project in 1963, before finishing the first vehicle. "He wrote this letter to his mother," Mullins says. "The reason I like this is that it connects you with the people. It connects you with what's going on."
Mullins' most meaningful tie to Apollo 8, the flight he says "saved 1968," is a brown chunk of resin, which is mounted so that it rotates under a small glass dome, like a ballerina in a music box. "If you were to pick that up out of scrap bin somewhere, you'd probably throw it away," he says of the heat-shield sample. "A lot of these artifacts don't mean a thing until you know the story behind them."
Says Mullins of the Apollo 8 orbit in a year marred by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy: "Space gave us something to believe in when the world was burning down around us."
Earl Mullins is certain that space exploration could once again rally and inspire a country of "couch potatoes" and "people on Prozac." With the fervor leaking off him like vapor from rocket fuel, it's not surprising to learn that he was once a Southern Baptist pastor. "This is my ministry now," he says. "Everything I've done has led me to this point."
He's become as avid about perfecting the museum experience as he was in collecting. He wants more interactive exhibits for kids. He worries that the galleries are too brightly lit. The audio tour is an hour long, and he asks, fretting, "It's too much information, isn't it?"
He hopes Bonne Terre might one day have a museum that rivals the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, which draws more than 200,000 people a year to the small city of Hutchinson.
The Cosmosphere began in 1962 as a makeshift planetarium in the poultry barn at the state fairgrounds. Today it's known for the deep-sea diving mission that it sponsored in 1999 to recover Grissom's Mercury capsule, the Liberty Bell 7. "It's a multimillion dollar facility," Mullins says. "If they can do it, we will."
A landscape scene that hangs in the museum's final exhibit depicts a man scaling to the top of a dusty red mesa. On the audio tour, which Mullins scripted himself, a rumbling voice laments, "Had we not become apathetic, this could have been a photograph, not a painting." Mullins has been waiting for 25 years to see humans reach Mars. "We should go because it's there," he says. "We should go and enjoy it."
NASA says it does intend to go to Mars. First, a project called Constellation is supposed to return humans to the barren lunar surface by 2020. Then the moon would serve as the low-gravity platform for launching the six-month journey to the Red Planet.