EAA museum gains astronaut’s treasures

Encased in glass is a two-page letter, neatly typed and labeled confidential. It was written in the 1960s to explain why it was unwise to challenge Russians to a race to the moon.

“I have occasionally leveled criticism at some aspects of the space program,” Dwight Eisenhower acknowledged, but that is because he believed the dare immediately changed thoughtful space exploration into a publicity stunt.

He addressed this explanation to military pilot Frank Borman, who had written to the president after being hired by NASA. “I thought I was serving the country whether I was in NASA or the Air Force,” he told Eisenhower.

Until now, the EAA Aviation Museum in Oshkosh was not known for space flight artifacts. In an area for children is a chip of moon rock. Among the museum’s collection of 200-some aircraft is a replica of SpaceShipOne, the first successful civilian-built spacecraft.

That was about it, but Borman has changed things. The Gemini 7 astronaut and commander of Apollo 8 is a lifetime Experimental Aircraft Association member. He is 90 years old and sought a good home for his lifelong treasures.

The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum expressed an interest in artifacts from Borman’s storied career, but he opted for Oshkosh. It is not unusual for pilots to offer the museum old magazines to aircraft, Dick Knapinski of EAA says, but something of this dimension is rare.

So EAA staff drove to an airplane hangar in Montana but needed a larger vehicle to transport the 1,000-plus items that Borman decided to donate.

“It’s such a gift and such an honor,” Knapinski says. “EAA has meant so much to him. He knew we’d take proper care” of his donation.

 “The Borman Collection: An EAA Member’s Space Odyssey,” a permanent exhibit, is organized into three sections: military flying, Gemini 7 and Apollo 8.

The opening coincided with the recent 50th anniversary of Apollo 8, a harrowing mission whose happy ending gave Americans a reason to celebrate at the end of a tumultuous year.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in 1968. Violence erupted during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Racial tension was high, despite passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act that April.

Copies of telegrams, sent to the Apollo 8 crew, stretch from floor to ceiling in one section of the Borman display. That includes one from Charles and Anne Lindbergh, who praised the astronauts for “a wisely courageously and perfectly executed accomplishment.”

From Richard Nixon:

“You and your colleagues have just completed the greatest peacetime conquest in the history of man. Even more dramatic you have demonstrated to all skeptics on this earth that throughout peaceful space exploration there are still new worlds to conquer.”

The telegram was sent Dec. 28, 1968. Within a week Time magazine coincidentally bumped the president as Man of the Year, replacing him with the Apollo trio of Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders.

The original printing plate for that magazine cover is here. So is a crew snapshot taken by Borman’s wife, Susan, on the eve of the Apollo flight. It was taken from across the street; NASA wouldn’t risk germ contamination through physical contact so close to liftoff.

Look for Apollo 8 heat shield fragments, the identification tag Borman need to show before getting into the rocket and the alarmingly uncomplicated hand controller that he used to fly it.

“Thank you for doing such a wonderful job,” the astronaut said, after seeing what museum curators did with his donation. He referred to aviation as his first love.

Models of the nine Air Force planes that Borman flew are here. So are the helmets he wore during the Gemini mission with Lovell. Plus “Peanuts” cartoon panels about space travel, signed by creator Charles Schulz.

Read the stories behind what you see, like the pilot wings received from a grateful Soviet Air Force general. “There is, indeed, a brotherhood of airmen that no propaganda – ours or the other side’s – can totally destroy,” Borman would later writer in “Countdown,” his autobiography.

About 10 percent of his artifacts are on display, which means items will be swapped out to keep the exhibit fresh.

One of the many treasures in storage, for now: a map of the moon with handwritten notes about where future landings could happen.

The EAA Aviation Museum, 3000 Poberezny Rd., Oshkosh, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $12.50 (less for senior citizens, veterans and children). eaa.org/eaa-museum

CNN.com recently selected the destination as one of the 20 best aviation museums in the world. “It’s unique from other aviation museums in that large sections focus on home-built and experimental aircraft, as well as air racing and competition flying,” the article stated.

A Sparta museum tells the story of a native son who was among America’s first astronauts. He was chosen as part of the original Mercury Seven in 1959, then grounded in 1962 because of an irregular heart rhythm.

In the Deke Slayton Memorial Space and Bicycle Museum, 200 W. Main St., is the astronaut’s unused 1962 spacesuit. Among other artifacts is a plaster mold of his hands: One finger is missing because of a childhood farm accident.

The museum frames itself as a progression of transportation. Bicycles matter because the 32-mile Elroy-Sparta State Trail was the nation’s first railroad rail-to-trail project. On display are 80-some bicycles, most historic.

Slayton, a military test pilot, was NASA’s first coordinator of astronaut activities, directing flight crew operations from 1963-72.

At age 51, he gained medical clearance to work as docking module pilot for the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz test project, the first joint flight of the United States and Soviet Union. At the time, Slayton was the oldest person in space flight.

He died of a brain tumor in 1993, and the museum was established six years later. It is in a former Masonic Temple and open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is $5 (less for senior citizens and children). dekeslaytonmuseum.org