Family Trip to Kansas Space Museum Yields New Cosmosphere CEO
Commander Christopher Orwoll (USN, ret.) is now the President and CEO of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center.
Credit: Kansas Cosmosphere.

When Navy Commander Christopher Orwoll began planning a trip for his family to the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, he was intending to further his hobby. Instead, Orwoll discovered a new profession.

The former commanding officer of the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps and professor of naval science at the University of Kansas, Orwoll was named the new president and CEO of the Cosmosphere last month after his predecessor, Jeff Ollenburger resigned in October. Ollenburger had held the position since 2002, replacing Cosmosphere co-founder Max Ary.

Billed as having a U.S. space artifact collection second only to the National Air and Space Museum and the largest collection of Russian space artifacts outside of Moscow, the Kansas Cosmosphere gained international attention for its restoration of the Apollo 13 command module Odyssey and astronaut Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 Mercury spacecraft. The latter was raised from the ocean floor where it had sat for nearly 40 years as part of an expedition co-led by the museum. Both spacecraft are now on display at the Cosmosphere.

Orwoll, who previously served as the executive officer of the USS Dolphin, the world's deepest diving submarine, spoke with recently, after his first week at the Cosmosphere's helm.

collectSPACE (cS): What led you to consider applying for the leadership of a space history museum?

Chris Orwoll (CO): Part of that is easy, just the fact of where I grew up. I grew up in Downey, obviously with the connection there with North American Aviation / North American Rockwell. I can show you pictures of myself as a six year old shaking hands with astronauts who were there for their tours following their missions. So I have always kind of been a space nut, and have kind of done this as a hobby, shall we say over the last -- however many years is that -- quite a few while I have been serving in the Navy. When I happened to start planning a trip for my family out to the Cosmosphere, I noted that the position here was open and kind of looked at it and said, "What better opportunity here with my background in the Navy, to maybe take a shot at working with the museum here and heading it up, combining, shall we say, hobby and leadership experience?"

cS: How was your first week on the job? How have you found your transition?

CO: The workload is pretty heavy right now because it's a lot of learning. I'm on a pretty steep learning curve right now, as you can well imagine, with my lack of background in the museum industry. That being said, a leadership position is a leadership position and the staff here is fantastic, so that part of it has been really easy. The volunteers here are a marvelous group of individuals and the paid staff is amazingly dedicated. So it's been a really easy transition coming out of the military thus far.

cS: Have there been any surprises?

CO: Really no, because I expected to be surprised every single morning. Like I said, its a learning curve. The joke, there is a saying in the military that you are being 'fed by the fire hose' right now. I am drinking from a fire hose as far as all the information I am trying to take in regards to operation of the museum, artifact preservation, collection, etc., and as these are areas I have not dealt with in the past. I'm having to get up to speed very quickly.

cS: Have you inherited projects already underway and/or what are you focusing on next?

CO: Some of the big projects that we have on-going, probably the biggest we have, is the work we are doing for the Evergreen Aviation Museum out in McMinnville, Oregon and that is proceeding at pace. We're on schedule for what we are going to be providing for them, all the exhibit structure for it. We're making little changes here and there, which are all based on which artifacts we can get ahold of, which ones they want, etc. In fact, we'll be going out to them for a meeting just in another couple of weeks to kind of finalize virtually everything. We are building the stands for the artifacts that we are going to be sending out there, simulators, etc. So, that is kind of one big thing that's on-going.

In addition to that, we just purchased some land across the street, just closed on it last month. We used to have a small parking lot across the street. There used to be a building next to it. We now own that land as well. That opens up, shall we say, a whole plethora of possibilities. We are bandying about the ideas right now of taking our camp/educational facilities, the Future Astronaut Training Program and those sort of things and moving them all maybe across the street. That would open a ton of space up here for artifacts and exhibits in the museum that we haven't had available to us in the past.

Over the next three to five months, we are going to be sitting down and really trying to focus on a strategic plan that is going to take us in the next one to five and 10 years. What's our focus going to be? How are we going to do this? We've got to start raising money if we are going to talk about building a building that size across the street. Those are kind of the dreams being bandied about right now, but nothing is set down on paper yet.

cS: The Cosmosphere made a name for itself, in part due to its restoration services. Are there artifacts undergoing restoration at the museum now?

CO: We've got a V-2 rocket right now that's sitting in our warehouse over on the other side of town. It's for one of the army bases we're restoring that. It's simple paint job for the most part; it's not a full restoration, it's a cosmetic restoration. And they've got a couple more rockets that they may want us to take a look at as well.

We're doing some small restoration projects as well for the Evergreen museum, and that's just a piece we have had in our collection, the Mercury 10 capsule, that we're going to be sending out there.

Other than that, nothing specific right now in our hands or that we're negotiating as we speak, but I think that's just a matter of time.

Continue reading's interview with Cmdr. Orwoll, including his comments about the effects of the recent federal trial against one of his predecessors. 

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