Illinois Astronaut Gallery 031610
Frank Thompson with the Prairie Aviation Museum points out the many astronauts who have ties to Illinois as he talks about the future of the Illinois Astronaut Gallery at Prairie Aviation Museum in Bloomington on Tuesday, March 16, 2010. (The Pantagraph/LORI ANN COOK-NEISLER) (March 16, 2010)

BLOOMINGTON — Almost three years after the Prairie Aviation Museum sought a new home for its Challenger Learning Center, the museum is returning to space.

This time it’s on a much smaller scale than running a 5,000-square-foot space mission simulator.

The museum has turned photos and biographies of 21 astronauts with Illinois ties into a new exhibit with the hope of building a collection of space-related artifacts.

“It would be great if we could get a spacesuit,” said Frank Thompson, museum curator.

The exhibit also marks the next step in the museum’s efforts to return its focus to being solely an aviation museum.

“We can concentrate on the museum again,” said Suzy Adreon, volunteer coordinator for the museum that sees about 5,000 visitors a year.

The museum, 2929 E. Empire St., opened the local Challenger Learning Center in 2003 but asked Heartland Community College in 2007 to take if over after the museum couldn’t continue to financially support it. The center moved from its original home in the old Central Illinois Regional Airport terminal to the college’s Normal campus in December.

Already the museum has an airplane flight suit used by Steve Nagel, a Canton native and a retired Air Force colonel. The suit, now a centerpiece to the exhibit, was worn by Nagel when he flew one of the airplanes that follow NASA’s space shuttles as they land.

Thompson has contacted as many of the astronauts as he can in the hopes that they have something they could add to the collection.

Scott Altman was the first to respond.

Altman, a Lincoln native who grew up in Pekin, is a former Navy test pilot who commanded his fourth space shuttle mission last year.

“We are looking for some of the smaller items, like checklists,” Thompson said. “We can’t do some of the more elaborate items that have special requirements for preservation.”

So far, Altman has put Thompson in contact with a NASA archivist to help sort out what NASA can provide that the museum can care for easily.

“I think they really want to help us,” he added.

The museum has nine military aircraft, including an F-100 Super Sabre jet, an F-14D Tomcat jet and UH-1H Huey helicopter. It also has a variety of cockpit instrument panels, engines, an antique flight trainer and aircraft models that cover more than 100 years of aviation history.

How to help

Donations to the Prairie Aviation Museum may be mailed to 2929 E. Empire St., Bloomington, IL, 61704, or made online at www.prairieaviationmuseum.org.

Museum hours

11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday


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