Discoveries: Free hands-on space museum in Marin County strip mall

By Sam McManis – Sacramento Bee

The Space Station Museum. “The Space Station Museum is helping to keep the dream alive.”

Most museums discourage the tactile. They encase their treasures in hermetically sealed Lucite, post all-caps “Do Not Touch” signs, have blue-blazered guards hovering nearby, lest these valuable artifacts be sullied by contact with the unwashed masses.

But here I stand, in the Space Station Museum off Highway 101, before a hunk of ancient rock, a meteorite the size of a Chipotle burrito, said to be 6,000 years old and discovered in Argentina in 1576. Now this is a valuable slab of space matter, to be sure. Why, then, is the docent, Angie Hutchins, compelling me to hoist the meteorite – or at least give it a good pawing?

“Go ahead, lift this guy,” she said, after giving me a quick up-and-down appraisal. “Feel how heavy it is. You’ll need two hands.”

Oh, puh-leeze. I work out. How heavy could it be?

Pretty darn heavy, actually. Hiatal hernia heavy. (OK, actually just 50 pounds.) Forget about doing the Olympic clean-and-jerk weightlifting maneuver; I got it only as far as waist high and then plopped it – maybe a wee bit too hard – back on its pedestal.

“Incredibly dense, huh?”

Hopefully, Hutchins was talking about the meteorite. In fact, she didn’t bat an eyelash as I manhandled this valued museum piece, one of hundreds of aeronautic heirlooms from Sputnik through the Space Shuttle that financier Ken Winans has collected and displayed since 2012.

Then again, this isn’t your ordinary private museum. It’s housed not in some architectural marvel on a wind-swept bluff; rather, it’s at a shopping center in a Marin County suburb, perched between Marin Coffee and Boca Pizzaria and across from a nail salon and dry cleaners.

Winans, whose investment management firm is a few miles away, had long wanted to share with the public his consuming passion: space exploration and the acquisition of memorabilia from the golden age of space flight. Some of his vast collection has been on display at the Chabot Science Center and the California Academy of Sciences. But the formality in the presentation of major museum exhibits seemed too sterile, too removed, for Winans, and the hefty admission fees offended his populous impulses.

So Winans swung a deal with the owners of strip mall to essentially squat at an empty retail space (paying a token $1 per month) so that the public could ogle items without paying a penny, artifacts ranging from the control panel from the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to a nose cone from a sounding pocket to one of the eight bolts that held the space shuttle to the lunch pad to a fully decked-out Russian Sokol KV2 spacesuit.

Not just ogle. You can slip your arm through the sleeve of that Russian spacesuit, try on a glove used on spacewalks at the International Space Station, paw that meteorite made of 80 percent iron and 20 percent gold, nickel and silver.

“Touching is a big deal,” Winans said. “I remember when I was on Chabot’s board. They had all these phenomenal meteorites behind glass. I told them at one board meeting, ‘Guys, this thing slammed into the Earth’s atmosphere at 40,000 miles per hour, what could a human do to this thing? That thing’s gonna hurt you before you ever hurt it.’ Everybody wants to know what a meteorite feels like. I just wanted to make certain that touch was a part of this place when I opened the museum.

“The curators of other museums are horrified that we let people put on our space vests. I remember saying, ‘Those gloves, yes, they are not cheap, but if 5,000 little kids put those things on, and maybe out of that group we get some scientists and mathematicians out of it, I’ll go buy another set of gloves. Know what? Young people are, in my view, visually overstimulated and tactilely deprived. We give them a chance to handle some of our stuff, and they remember it.”

Winans has more, much more, at his Marin County house. He routinely rotates items from home to museum and back, to “keep the collection fresh,” and each August holds the Novato Space Fest in the strip mall parking lot, this year featuring astronauts Dick Gordon and Dan Bursch. He’s in the process of shipping out from Missouri a 15-foot-tall, 21-foot-wide replica of the lunar module, and he also will have a life-size model of a lunar rover.

Though he does not begrudge the precautions big museums take to protect their collections, Winans does take issue at their remoteness, both in location and attitude.

“I’ve been on numerous boards of museums and centers, so I’ve had a chance to look at it, and I always found it kind of interesting that a lot of museums, the first thing they start with is a building. A lot of museum buildings are way out in the middle of nowhere. Then what do they have? Attendance problems. I’ve always said, ‘How many malls have vacancies right now?’ All over. You read about it. Wouldn’t make more sense to make it convenient for people to put a museum there?

“Whenever I brought up this idea, it was, ‘No, no, you can’t do that.’ That’s all I kept hearing. I wanted to prove you could do a mini-shopping center museum and have great attendance.”

Open three days a week, with limited hours, the Space Station Museum has attracted 18,000 visitors in two years, Winans said. “And that doesn’t include private tours and school groups,” he added.

Part of the popularity, Winans believes, comes from the proximity of the museum to a captive audience and the free admission.

“Look at the new (San Francisco) Exploratorium – $220 million later,” Winans said. “Take a wild guess what it takes a family of four to go there. It’s expensive ($29 general; $24 for children and seniors). If we go back to the spirit of what a museum is supposed to be, which is an education center, it shouldn’t be just for people who can afford very expensive admittance fees. We’ve got to go back to the way it used to be, when you had patrons like the Rockefellers and the Carnegies. I’d say this state has a good number of wealthy patrons out there.”

None, however, who has taken the bold step to put their personal collections, be it art by the Old Masters or pricey scientific memorabilia, in a strip mall.

“I call it the speed tour for Marin residents: You come here, go get coffee, come back,” he said. “A couple of days later, when you’re shopping, you come in and look at something else.”

Docent M.J. Marggraff said many people “stumble upon” the museum. One recent afternoon, locals Brian Keefer and Mansour Bassiri had finished dining at the pizza joint and spent a good 20 minutes milling about the museum.

“The giant space suit (statue, nicknamed ‘Big John’) pulled us in,” Keefer said.

Hutchins, the docent, told the pair about the meteorite and encouraged them to hoist the rock. Keefer gave it a shot, putting it back down quickly.

“Whoa,” he said, “that’s deceivingly heavy.”