This striking view of the New Mexico Museum of Space History at dawn was taken by area resident Jim Harris.
As the decade of the 20’s launches, officials with the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo are taking a look back at their successes from the past decade.
In 2012, the Museum reached an historic low point in attendance – a decline that started in the late 1980s and grew progressively worse until it reached a low of 74,000 guests. To put that number in perspective, in 1989 the Museum boasted an attendance of more than 204,000 visitors.
Officials say a number of factors played into the dramatic loss, from flagging interest in all things space to the price of gas and the lack of investment in the museum’s infrastructure and exhibits. Staffing hit an all-time low as well, with only half the personnel of the previous decade to operate the museum, theater, collections, restoration and exhibits. And then things began to slowly turn around.
“A new Museum Director came on board in mid-2012, Christopher Orwoll,” officials share. “Infrastructure was his first priority which included a myriad of long overdue projects such as fixing the leaking roofs, sprucing up the inside and outside, replacing HVAC, and even cleaning the museum’s giant golden windows.”
Over the next few years, investment in Museum infrastructure exceeded $4 million from private and government sources, with a majority of those dollars going to local and regional contractors.
Adding to the Museum’s collection was high on Orwoll’s “to do” list, which, although impressive, was no means as comprehensive as he wanted it.
In 2013, the first of many new artifacts arrived – Apollo Command Module Boilerplate BP-1207 which was transported 1,500 miles via semi-truck from its home in Ocala, Florida. The day the boilerplate arrived marked another milestone for the Museum when Orwoll announced that it had been accepted into the Smithsonian Affiliations Program.
The Governor proclaimed March 1 to be “New Mexico Museum of Space History Day”, with free museum admission each March 1 for state residents.
“Since then, a steady stream of artifacts has been pouring into the museum’s Curatorial Department. The National Space Society designated the Museum as its official repository and followed that with boxes after boxes of NSS and space history going back to the 70s,” museum officials shared.
One of the largest, if not the largest, private space collector in the country made the biggest single donation in the Museum’s history – more than $1.2 million worth of space related artifacts from photos and manuals to mission control consoles and space toilet models. That collection is so large that it is still in the process of being acquired.
With the Smithsonian designation, the opportunity to borrow images and artifacts from the Smithsonian and its partners brought a stunning collection of Chrystal Jackson artwork which can be seen on the Museum’s second floor, along with a wide variety of other artifacts both large and small.
Today, the Museum is home to a significant collection of space “pop-art” and has tripled its Russian artifacts, in addition to acquiring space suit mock-ups from the US and Soviet programs – and science fiction movies, with the support of the International Space Hall of Fame Foundation and the Department of Cultural Affairs.
Along the way, the Governor’s Commission to the Museum and Orwoll developed a five year strategic plan and settled on a revised mission statement that included the word “air” – an opportunity for the Museum to begin collecting and conserving aircraft that fit into two criteria: (1) the aircraft must be of local or regional importance or (2) it must have been used in support of the space program.
In early 2019, the first aircraft arrived at the Museum – a German Panavia Tornado, donated by the German Air Force as they finished their mission at Holloman Air Force Base.
As the decade proceeded, staff at the Museum increased to 24 including a Deputy Director and Outreach Coordinator. Its theater became the first in the world to install a 4k digital projection system, along with installing a brand new dome to replace the original 1980s dome.
The Education Department traveled the state and parts of other states, reaching out to thousands students, hosting the first K-12 International Space Station downlink in the state, and developing innovative education activities like Alien Autopsy.
Educators flew on NASA’s SOFIA 747 Observatory with Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura, were chosen as Solar System Ambassadors, and the Department’s Director Dave Dooling became a regular presenter at the Space Exploration Educators Conference at Space Center Houston. He’s also presented at the Astrobiology Science Conference in Tempe, Arizona
In the meanwhile, Orwoll brought national and international attention to the Museum with appearances on a wide variety of television programs. He has currently been featured in 39 episodes of NASA’s Unexplained Files, 3 episodes of Mysteries at the Museum, and has also appeared in Hardcore Heroes and Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy.
The new decade is bringing new challenges and commitments to the Museum. New landscaping along Highway 2001 and in the parking lots is in process. Plans are in place to install several new interactive exhibits inside the Museum and in the soon to be expanded Tombaugh Education Building.
More artifacts, including another jet, are on the way and an expansion of the Hubbard Space Science Research Building, which houses small artifacts and the research library, is in the works. In the past decade, the Museum’s Curatorial Department has catalogued more than 15,000 books and in excess of 27,000 papers, photos and magazines.
“One of the biggest positive changes at the Museum? Museum attendance has been steadily climbing at 3-5% each year. When its fiscal year ends on June 30, attendance is projected to top 125,000,” officials added. “If you ask Orwoll, he’ll tell you, it’s all part of the plan.”
The New Mexico Museum of Space History, a Smithsonian Affiliate, is a division of the NM Department of Cultural Affairs. For more information, call 575-437-2840 (or toll free 1-877-333-6589) visit the website, or check out and ‘Like’ the museum’s Facebook page