Johnsville Centrifuge Training Capsule Comes Home
The gondola used to prepare Mercury and Gemini astronauts for the extreme conditions of outer space arrived in Warminster Thursday afternoon.
As soon as they got the okay from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum a few weeks ago, Mike Maguire and Mark Calhoun, president and vice president, respectively, of the Johnsville Centrifuge and Science Museum (JCSM), raced to organize the pick up and delivery of the original training gondola used by Mercury and Gemini astronauts at the Naval Air Developmental Center in Warminster.
The pair wanted to bring the massive piece of history back home on May 5, in time for the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s historic space launch. After a welcome ceremony at the Bucks County Visitors Center in Bensalem, a police and fire escort down Street Road Thursday afternoon ensured that their dream had finally come true.
“This is a great opportunity for Warminster to have this important artifact,” said Maguire. “We want to build a great collection that will get kids interested in science and technology education, and we have a big building to fill. This acquisition will jump start those efforts in a hurry.”
The gathered crowd erupted into applause as the heavy crane carefully set down the massive training capsule onto a concrete platform next to the Penn State anechoic chamber on Bristol Road, marking the end of a long, two-day journey, starting from the storage yard of the Smithsonian.
“They have been really supportive of us from the beginning,” said Maguire. “As soon as they found out the gondola had a home waiting for it, they did everything they could. We just had to meet the milestones in the bureaucratic process.”
The five-man delivery crew traveled down to the NASM Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Suitland, Md., Wednesday morning, spending four-and-a-half hours in the pouring rain getting the capsule prepared and secured to the flatbed truck provided by R.T. Hankinson in Ottsville, Pa.
“We were totally oblivious to the rain,” said Maguire. “We had the time of our lives. We got to look around at all the stuff that isn’t on display in the actual museum, like a kamikaze plane riddled with bullet holes.”
The convoy paused for the night at a truck stop in Elkton, Md., where the unusual cargo caught the attention of fellow truckers.
“It was a good ride,” said truck operator Bob Hankinson, owner of R.T. Hankinson. “The Maryland DOT pulled us over. They didn’t ask to see any identification, they just wanted to take some pictures.”
After arriving at Neil Armstrong Middle School Thursday morning for staging preparations, the capsule was delivered to the Bucks County Visitors Center for a homecoming ceremony. Rob Mitchell, a spokesperson for Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick read a statement from the Bucks County representative, saying, “The return and restoration of the gondola of the centrifuge used to train Apollo astronauts will now help to educate, inform and inspire the next generation of Americans.”
The acquisition and delivery of the capsule also captured the attention of the History Channel, which partnered with Comcast to contribute a $10,000 grant from its Save Our History project. The money will be used to develop education programs at the museum.
“The fund is designed to award projects focused on objects of historical significance,” said Mead Rust, senior manager of corporate outreach for the History Channel. “This terrific artifact certainly fits the criteria.”
For now, the gondola will stay where it is, just off Bristol Road. A pavilion will be constructed over it, but Maguire isn’t too concerned about its exposure to the elements.
“It sat outside in the Smithsonian storage yard for 47 years, and it looks great,” he said. “It’s designed to withstand extreme G-force conditions, so it’s pretty sturdy.”
The JCSM will continue to raise funds to completely restore the gondola and have it moved inside the museum at 780 Falcon Circle, but Maguire said that could be years down the road. The museum will be open for special hours this weekend to commemorate the gondola’s arrival. Those interested can tour the facility on Saturday, noon- 4 p.m. and Sunday, 1-4 p.m. The second annual Spring Gala is also scheduled for May 14, 6-11 p.m. at the VE German Club on Davisville Road. Tickets cost $60.