It’s out of this world – in Kihikihi

Dave Owen’s dream holiday is to visit the International Space Station. He’d even volunteer to go to Mars provided the mission was one he believes can succeed – always depending, of course, on whether his family will let him.


Fly me to the Space Station: Dave Owen with a Russian helmet, one of the exhibits in his Te Awamutu Space Centre.

Dave is a self-proclaimed space enthusiast but it’s not just an idle interest. He’s made space his full-time job as the owner, curator and chief guide at the Te Awamutu Space Centre in Kihikihi.

“I’ve been interested in space since I watched ‘Star Trek’ as a child,” says Dave, whose previous job was as a freelance television director working for news and sporting channels, specialising in outside broadcasts.

He’s also a web designer, all skills which have come in more than handy at the Space Centre.

About 15 years ago Dave began taking online courses to learn more about space and at the same time building on his childhood space collection, adding artefacts from the American and Russian/Soviet space programmes with the intention of starting a museum.

He also joined the Hamilton Astronomical Society and was president for a period working to promote its work and improve facilities and equipment.

Reading Stephen Hawking’s book ‘A Brief History of Time’ also helped galvanise Dave’s desire educate others about the universe and Earth’s place in it.

In 2009 he opened the Te Awamutu Space Centre in Te Awamutu but in January moved to a new location in a church hall in Kihikihi where with the hands-on help of his parents Stephanie and Bruce Owen, wife Ange Holt and their children Jess and Floyd converted it into a working museum.

Dave is equally fascinated with space and astronomy as with space travel and everywhere you look in the museum there are fascinating exhibits, many of them web and computer-based meaning this is a hand-on experience children – of all ages – just love.


These gloves are from a Russian SOKOL pressure space suit used during the lunch and re-entry of the Soyuz space craft.

Drifting off
Among the static exhibits is a green Russian sleeping bag, complete with side tabs to tie it and its occupant in place, making dozing off – but not drifting off – possible in the
space station.

There’s also a helmet, gloves and shoes from a Russian SOKOL pressure space suit used during the lunch and re-entry of the Soyuz space craft. The SOKOL suits were developed in the early 1970s and are still in use today.

“I’ve tried wearing the gloves and using my hands inside them but it’s incredibly hard. It must be extremely difficult for astronauts to work in space wearing these suits.”

Dave says it was reasonably easy to get authentic equipment and clothing from the Russian space programme following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but not so easy to buy anything from the American programme.

However, the museum does have an Apollo 9 cue card used in space in 1969. He generally buys exhibits only from reputable auction houses to be sure of their provenance.

Thanks to his considerable IT skills, Dave has set up several large computer displays, one of which shows real time images of Earth from the International Space Station and graphics plotting its route in orbit.


An Apollo 9 cue card used in space in 1969 is among the exhibits in the Te Awamutu Space Centre.

Japanese astronaut
While he’s not been to space, Dave has spent time with astronauts, including Akihiko Hoshide, a Japanese engineer and a JAXA astronaut, who on August 30, 2012, became
the third Japanese astronaut to walk in space.  

Akihiko gave Dave an autographed photograph of himself in a space suit, which has pride of place in the museum.

“One of the things Akihiko comments on, and I’ve heard other astronauts says, is how thin the atmosphere which protects Earth appears to be from space. It’s quite a sobering comment.”

The museum includes interactive stations where visitors can view images of celestial bodies, including planets, from all angles.

In one part of the museum a Mars greenhouse experiment is underway in which Dave will attempt to grow plants in conditions as close as possible to those likely to be established on Mars, once humans finally get there.

“I’ve used sterilised volcanic material which is about as close as I can get to what Mars soil is like. The atmosphere on Mars is about 95 per cent carbon dioxide so that might be quite good for plants as they breathe CO2.”


Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide gave Dave Owen an autographed photo for display in his Te Awamutu Space Centre.

Toilet training
The Te Awamutu Space Centre is also active in the BOINC research community, using its computers to run astronomy-related research for scientists around the world.

One of the most interesting “exhibits” in the museum is probably Dave himself.

He is such an enthusiast about space it’s contagious and he’s also a mine of information, ready and able to answer questions.

Among the one most children want to know is – how do you go to the toilet is the space station? And Dave can give the answer, which includes explaining astronauts have to receive special toilet training before leaving Earth.

While he doesn’t believe the current privately-funded Mars One mission to establish a human settlement on Mars will happen, Dave does believe human colonisation will be possible at some stage in the future. He also believes other life forms may be found within 10 to 20 years. “It may not look like us but we will recognise life when we find it.”

The Te Awamutu Space Centre holds open days, opens for special events and caters for schools and private bookings. To find out more visit the website www.spacecentre.nz or email info@spacecentre.nz


An Apollo 9 cue card used in space in 1969 is among the exhibits in the Te Awamutu Space Centre.


Te Awamutu Space Centre owner Dave Owen indicates on a screen where the International Space Station is in its Earth orbit.


This Russian sleeping bag has side tabs to tie it and its occupant in place, making dozing off – but not drifting off – possible in the space station.


Solar flares make for spectacular viewing at the Te Awamutu Space Centre.


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