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Full Coverage: Astronauts' artifacts in limbo

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Astronaut artifacts to stay put
By John Kelly, Florida Today

September 27, 2002 — Howard Benedict scrambled for weeks to keep together what could be the most priceless collection of space memorabilia on display in one place.

The bank was foreclosing on the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame and Space Camp Florida. Insurance on the buildings and exhibits was about to run out. And some of the astronauts, family members and museums which had loaned the hall priceless pieces of space history were getting a little nervous about the facility's future.

"Howard keeping that collection together just this last month was yeoman's work," said Jim Lovell, the Apollo 13 astronaut who is chairman of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, a group established by the original seven Mercury astronauts.

Benedict, the group's executive director, was able to delay the potential dismantling just long enough. On Thursday, the company that runs the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for NASA made a deal to take over management of the Hall of Fame and keep it open.

That means the wide-ranging collection of items worn by the stars of the space race will stay at the Hall of Fame, miles from the pads where the astronauts were launched. The flight suit worn to space by Gus Grissom, the Apollo 14 capsule from a moon trip and Lovell's scout badges are a few examples from the collection the foundation assembled over the years.

Other museums would love to get their hands on such pieces, Lovell and Benedict said. Lovell said a museum in Milwaukee, where he grew up, is "a little jealous" that his mementos are on display here instead. Some astronauts and other owners of the exhibits were being asked to think about moving their items to other museums -- or even to sell them. "The astronauts were very supportive," said Benedict, a retired journalist who covered the space race from here as a correspondent for The Associated Press. "I started getting calls, and they were worried, but they wanted to keep all of the collection together in one place if they could."

Astronaut artifacts to stay put
By John Kelly, Florida Today

September 16, 2002 — The priceless exhibits at the Astronaut Hall of Fame will not be auctioned off Wednesday [Editor's note: the property auction has been postponed by the bank until September 25].

Most of the artifacts are on loan from other museums and astronauts themselves. None were mortgaged when Space Camp Florida and the Astronaut Hall of Fame amassed millions of dollars in debt to expand facilities in the 1990s. Instead, the foreclosure by SouthTrust Bank will be settled by auctioning the buildings and equipment at the two attractions.

So Gus Grissom's flight suit will go back to his wife, Betty, in Houston. Jim Lovell's boy scout badges will be shipped back to the retired astronaut in Chicago. And the Apollo 14 capsule, from the sixth flight to the moon, will be sent back to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Much of the history on display at the Hall of Fame, on State Road 405 in Titusville, is on loan from museums, the astronauts or their families. If the worst-case scenario plays out this week, and the auction ends with the closure of the hall, managers have made plans to deal with the exhibits.

"We're very hopeful of course," said Mary Merritt, director of both of the local attractions. "We think there has to be a backup plan. That's what it is, returning everything. We are not dismantling anything or getting anything ready to ship yet because we're hoping something will be worked out before it comes to that."

Delaware North Park Services, the private contractor that runs the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex for NASA, has been attempting to buy the Hall of Fame as a possible addition to its tourist offerings just down the road. The company's officials have proposed adding the hall exhibits to its attractions and tours of Florida's space flight history.

Just last week, Kennedy Space Center Director Roy Bridges acknowledged NASA is supporting the vendor's effort to salvage the Astronaut Hall of Fame although he said he did not know its status. Bridges said he did not want the tourists who visit Kennedy to miss out on the chance to see some of the one-of-a-kind storytelling items at the Hall.

"I'm obviously disappointed and chagrined," Bridges said. Delaware North officials have repeatedly declined to say more than that they were negotiating with the bank to acquire the attraction.

The existing Hall grew out of efforts by the original seven Mercury astronauts. Many of the 1960s era astronauts or their spouses still sit on the board of directors of the body that runs the facility. Those facilities, however, were mortgaged during a $10 million expansion of the museum and space camp in the late 1990s. Payments have not been made on the debt and after years of waiting, the bank is foreclosing on the property.

SouthTrust banks lawyer Matthew Julian of Orlando said he could not comment on the status of the foreclosure litigation, including whether negotiations were ongoing to sell the museum to Delaware North or another private bidder that might keep the facility open. SouthTrust officials did not respond to telephone calls.

The preceding articles were reprinted with the permission of Florida Today, where they first appeared.

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