With a U.S. space artifact collection second only to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in D.C., and the largest collection of Russian space artifacts outside of Moscow, the Hall of Space Museum at the Kansas Cosmosphere & Space Center in Hutchinson, Kan., is hailed by space enthusiasts worldwide.
The oohs and aaahs start as you walk through the doors. Look up to see the SR-71 Blackbird. This Lockheed rocket with wings is able to travel at speeds faster than a bullet and at altitudes where no other planes dare to be. When the pilots of this spy-jet were ready to eat, they heated dinner by holding their food to the windows -- which had been heated in flight to more than 600 degrees Fahrenheit.
It's an impressive start to a museum that will keep you oohing and aahing. Among the attractions worth a visit:
• Dr. Goddard's Lab: In this live demonstration of early rocket technology, you'll be transported back to the 1930s lab of Dr. Robert Goddard -- the pioneer of modern rocketry. Demonstrations of Goddard's early experiments with liquid-fueled rocket engines end with a bang. Definitely one to watch with the little ones.
• Justice Planetarium: The Planetarium features a multimedia exploration of the solar system, navigational technology, deep space, and astronomical research. This was by far my favorite part of the museum. Our "host" was comical and knowledgeable, and even showed us what the night sky would look like the night we were there--then made us get up and dance to make sure we were wide awake.
• Carey IMAX Dome Theater: As the 12th IMAX theater built in the world, the Carey IMAX wraps up, down, and around its audience. The 44-square foot screen is perforated with thousands of tiny holes that allow digital surround sound to stream throughout the theater. We watched "Flying Monsters" -- a documentary about the world's first flying vertebrates which grew to have a 40-foot wingspan. The story of how and why these mysterious creatures took to the air is more fantastic that any fiction. Check the website to find out what's playing before your visit.
• Cold War: Chronicling the first steps of both the U.S. and Soviet space programs, this gallery brings to life the Cold War standoff between the superpowers and the early drama of the Space Race.
• Mollett Early Spaceflight Gallery: Come face-to-face with American heroes … and Soviet secrets. Actual spacecraft, hardware, spacesuits and training gear from the American and Russian programs capture the ingenuity, accomplishment, and tension of the times as two Cold War enemies face off in the race to the moon.
• Apollo Gallery: This gallery showcases our lunar encounters, from Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon to Gene Cernan's last.
The Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center is at 1100 N. Plum St., Hutchinson, Kan., about 50 miles northwest of Witchita (and, as the website notes, 800 million miles from Saturn). Phone: (800) 397-0330. Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m. Sunday. Admission prices vary depending on what you want to do. An all-day, all-inclusive "mission pass" is $18 for adults, $16 for children (ages 4-12) and seniors (60+), free for ages 3 and under.
Amanda Topinka is a freelance writer and blog owner of "The Procrastinating Mommy" and author of the TravelingMom with Toddlers blog on TravelingMom.com. Follow her on Twitter at: @Amanda_aka_Mom or on Facebook at: The Procrastinating Mommy.