Here in Huntsville, we are blessed to rub elbows with many of the people who helped win the space race. They are living, breathing histories of the years leading up to that day in 1969 when humans landed on the moon.
WAAY 31 sat down with a man who has amassed a huge collection of NASA memorabilia during his years at the space agency, and he wants to share it with the public.
“When I was a young engineer, we worked out at the Arsenal on weekends for no money,” said former NASA engineer, Kenny Mitchell.
For Mitchell, the space program is in his blood. He’s a charter member of Marshall Space Flight Center, joining on his 18th birthday in 1959 as a co-op student at Auburn University.
He brought a “can do” attitude with him every day of his 40-year career as an engineer with NASA. His work spanned every program, from Saturn to Skylab to the ISS and SLS.
His job gave him access to places and people that few had, and he wants to share it all, to tell the amazing story of NASA through the years.
“The 135 shuttle missions, I’ve got a picture of every crew, and a lot of them signed by the crew,” said Mitchell. “I have thousands of astronaut signatures in these notebooks here."
Much of Mitchell’s collection is on display in Huntsville at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, including a rare model of the Soviet N1 rocket that he collected while a diplomat in the USSR. The N1 was supposed to take Soviet cosmonauts to the moon, but failed on launch four out of four times, before the Soviets gave up.
“I’d tell my wife before she died, 'Now if I die before you do, don’t sell this in a garage sale. It’s really valuable stuff, and don’t throw it away,'” said Mitchell.
A U.S. Space and Rocket Center archivist, Diane Brown, recently went through Mitchell’s treasure trove, more of which will soon be on display as we get closer to the Apollo 11 anniversary.
“We love Kenny Mitchell,” said Brown. “With everything to do with space history and pop culture, and we are so thankful and so excited that he has given all of that to us.”
Mitchell's eyes light up when he shows off his collection. When asked about his most prized possession, there was a sudden shift in his otherwise jovial demeanor.
“It’s not here," said Mitchell. "And I’m a little concerned. I’ve got Yuri Gagarin’s signature.”
That’s an original signature from the first man in space.
“I have actually lost things. Like right now, I’m trying to figure out, what did I do with that Gagarin letter, because that was so precious to me,” said Mitchell.
Thankfully, Mitchell still has that "can do" spirit. Failure is not an option for him, never has been, and with a little persistence and searching, the Gagarin signature was found.
Mitchell has a few one-of-a-kind items in his collection, including Neil Armstrong’s expense report for his moon mission. It’s a $45 charge to NASA to reimburse him for the cost of the ride to the airport in Houston for the trip to Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Mitchell said he believes saving these small pieces of history allows us to piece together a bigger picture of what it was like to be part of history.