By BEN TERTIN
Of the News-Register
Satellites hovered overhead. Rockets loomed above the glassy floor. And three little kids burst out from the underground launch pit of a massive missile.
Halting for just a split second at his mother's ankles, 8-year-old Elias Dodson squealed, "Mom! Mom! Come here!" before corkscrewing back down the stairs at top speed with his sister Rachel, 6, and brother Zuriah, 5, trailing close behind.
By that time, the Titan II missile's simulated launch was booming underfoot, pulling a crowd of curious opening-day museum-goers down the spiral stairs.
The Evergreen Space Museum's official grand opening ceremonies began at 9 a.m. Friday, with an amped up "Ten...nine...eight..." countdown bellowing through loudspeakers.
Smoking rocket launch images flashed on a backdrop. And after a climactic "...two...one.... zero!" the museum's final take-off proved a soaring success.
"This grand opening turnout is well over what we'd expected - well over 1,000 people," said Nicole Wahlberg, the museum's marketing and public relations director. She said at least half of the Evergreen 280-person volunteer staff was on hand for the event as well, offering information about the exhibits.
As the flood of seniors, parents, field trip chaperones and children poured through the doors, surprised exclamations of "Wow!" and "Look over there!" echoed through the space-age artifacts. Within 30 minutes, the museum was filled with smiling people, slowly spinning around on their heels, heads turned skyward.
"This is a much bigger deal than I thought," one mom mumbled to another, who agreed. Their kids scrambled around underneath the SR-71 Blackbird, pausing to peer into its minivan-sized engine compartment.
McMinnville High choir teacher Dana Libonati ushered in a respectful, reverent mood with his solo rendition of the national anthem. Chief Master Sgt. John Rasmussen of the Oregon Air National Guard welcomed the crowd, noting that 64 years ago on this day, the invasion of Normandy was getting under way.
McMinnville Mayor Ed Gormley thanked everyone who contributed to the museum during its countdown, which began in September 2006. He said men and women had contributed more than 225,000 injury-free work hours to the museum's construction.
By the time McMinnville School Superintendent Maryalice Russell finished commending Evergreen for its educational contributions, which include classroom space inside the new museum, the adults in the crowd were beaming. But the kids were starting to squirm.
Three grade-school boys plunked on the floor three feet away from the Blackbird's pin-sharp nose cone. Each had a yellow pencil and clipboard. Each started sketching the towering Titan II behind the two astronauts speaking on stage.
Gens. Tom Stafford and Joe Engle, both former astronauts, talked about breaking land speed records, orbiting the earth, racing Russia to the moon and flying the space shuttle Enterprise. With a reverence for the past, and a bow to Socrates, Engle said, "There is no easy road from the earth to the stars."
By the close of the ceremony, the kids were anxious to explore the spacious new world. And everyone else was wondering if what they'd just heard could be true.
Jennie Hayes, a copywriter with Weiden & Kennedy advertising, said Evergreen is getting closer to owning its own space shuttle.
Evergreen is in the running as the final resting place for one of four shuttles NASA is mothballing, she said. In fact, a delegation flew in earlier this week for a first-hand look as part of the selection process.
Evergreen has Engle's vote.
"This is a gorgeous hangar," said Engle, who once commanded the space shuttles Columbia and Discovery. "You couldn't ask for a better place to protect one of the shuttles ... to remind people of this heritage."
David Sears, a volunteer docent, said he was a 25-year-old science teacher at Mac High when the Russians launched Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957. Looking up at the satellites and rockets on exhibit, he said, "That day sparked all of this."
Gary Sohn of Lafayette, a retired Air Force master sergeant, said, "This is a great deal, because we now have a major museum west of the Mississippi."
Hank Lane, a Coffman Excavation employee and Beaverton resident, said he hadn't seen anything like Evergreen's new Space Museum. "I've been to the museum at Boeing in Seattle, and it doesn't hold a candle to this one," he said.
Two fourth-grade classes from Harritt Elementary in Salem became the first school groups to tour the museum, an identical twin to Evergreen's original 121,000-square-foot Aviation Museum.
Ten-year-old Onie Okelly-Evans said, "This place is wicked sweet!"
"The rocket stuff is awesome," agreed friend Noah Jantera, also 10.
Chaperone Rick Smith had his hands full trying to keep track of his 10- and 11-year-old charges as they scurried from lunar modules to rocket engines to massive jets. But he was just as impressed as they were.
"Yeah, this is a blast," he said. "I'm going to have to bring my family back here."