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The only source for genuine (full-scale) draw formed metal replicas of the Mercury spacecraft, Gemini capsule, and Mars Rover.

By GEORGE WILKENS, The Tampa Tribune

 

Published: February 16, 2008

 

Updated: 02/16/2008 12:13 am

 

THONOTOSASSA - Bruce Olds isn't certain exactly how his interest in America's space program became an obsession, but he knows when. It was sparked by a photo caption in "Chariots for Apollo," a book he read in 1999.

 

Since then, the Tampa native has spent countless hours creating detailed, full-size metal replicas of NASA space capsules that carried America's first astronauts.

 

Olds' reproduction of the capsule piloted in May 1961 by Alan Shepard, the first American in space, has been on display at the Museum of Science & Industry since 2002.

 

Until its recent sale, another 500-pound replica of a Mercury 7 capsule rested

on a trailer in the garage of Olds' Thonotosassa home. A half-finished Gemini

capsule awaits further attention from its detail-driven creator.

 

The book Olds read a decade ago detailed the fate of 15 lunar excursion

modules, including one resting and rusting in a Merritt Island salvage yard.

 "It is still there," read the caption under the LEM photograph.

 

"I was unsettled by that. Those four words made me say, 'That's a travesty,'

" Olds recalled. Unable to contact the authors, Olds launched a mission of

his own.

 

With a magnifying glass, he deciphered "A-1 Crane" on a boom truck in

the background of the small black-and-white photo, tracked down a

telephone number and called.

 

"You guys got a lunar module in your yard?"

 

                                                                                                                           Capsule recently seen on Museum Men

No. The boom truck was sold years earlier. A-1 Crane, however, put Olds in touch with Charles Bell, owner of not only the boom truck, but also that elusive LEM and truckloads of space junk dotting his Merritt Island compound, including an eye-catching, 100-foot Atlas rocket.

 

Learning On The Fly

 

Bell, a retired NASA electrical design engineer and longtime wheeler-dealer in space scrap, befriended Olds and alerted him to auctions of space program surplus, held periodically in the Cape Canaveral area.

 

"I'd never attended an auction before in my life. I had no clue what the hell I was doing," Olds said.

 

Undeterred, he not only attended but also carried a $60,000 letter of credit, just in case something nifty caught his eye.

 

"I wasn't that deep into it yet. There were things I was looking at that I really didn't know what they were," the 47-year-old said recently as he stood in his den jammed with all things space: photographs, posters, models, authentic NASA gizmos and a ton of books on flight.

 

Olds inspected artifacts at those early auctions, bid on some, always stopping when prices reached a self-imposed spending limit. Some items sold for "astronomical prices," he said with a straight face.

 

Olds, who studied automotive mechanics at Tampa Bay Technical High School and later took night classes, learning welding, plumbing and air-conditioning repair, decided he could - and would - get "very self-educated" and assemble his own space capsule.

 

"You get me interested, I get up to speed," he said confidently.

 

Anyone short of a NASA engineer might have difficulty distinguishing one of his models from a functional, vintage capsule.

 

His first capsule - the one at MOSI - took nearly three years to build, including research, development, and plenty of trial and error with various metals before opting for aluminum alloy.

 

He created jigs and tools to accurately line up the capsule's struts, and even built machines to create his replicas. He collected a slew of small vintage electronic doodads to install in his capsules.

 

The details Olds demands means his Mercury model has the exact number of dimples in its metal skin as the capsule Shepard piloted during that historic 15-minute flight nearly a half-century ago.

 

"It's hell reproducing stuff," especially working from now-public NASA diagrams that lack measurements, Olds said.

 

"You have to self-dimension," he said, conceding that during a visit to Kennedy Space Center years ago, he surreptitiously made a clay impression of a Mercury 7 capsule dimple. Out of respect, Olds wrapped his clump of clay in cellophane before pressing it against the capsule.

 

For A Certain Clientele

 

Despite his interest in NASA items and other space gadgets, Olds insisted,

 "I'm not really a collector."

 

He has transformed his obsession into a home-based business, lately

his full-time job. Spacecraft Exhibits is often discovered from its Web site,

home.earthlink.net/spacecraftex/, or through networking among NASA

enthusiasts.

 

The scope of potential customers is limited, especially with Olds'

Mercury capsule reproduction commanding $40,000 plus shipping.

 

The capsule was bought recently by the Tommy Bartlett Exploratory, home to more than 150 interactive exhibits that delve into a broad range of activities, including space travel. "It is absolutely marvelous; it's perfect to scale," said Tom Diehl, president, general manager and co-owner of Tommy Bartlett Inc., who had seen the capsule only in photos before it was trucked to Wisconsin Dells, Wis. "It's just what I hoped it was going to be. This is going to fit in beautifully" at the year-round museum that includes a Russian Mir space station core module acquired in 1997.

 

The 25-year-old attraction plans to have the Mercury capsule on display by spring.

 

Visitors who examine Olds' work might be surprised it was produced not in a factory by an engineer but in a garage by one man, a baby boomer whose past work includes building houses, driving limousines and repossessing vehicles.

 

"I just love a challenge," said Olds, acknowledging he throws himself into his spacecraft work. "There's times you think you're building the real thing."

 

Reporter George Wilkens can be reached at (813) 865-4443 or gwilkens@tampatrib.com.

 

Bruce Olds building a full scale metal Mercury capsule.

Spacecraft Exhibits |  813.986.4001 | Thonotosassa, FL 33592 | spacecraftex@earthlink.net

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