New Kent space-themed park lets imagination soar

Kherson Park features the Boeing-sponsored Space for Kidz augmented reality app

May 25, 2023 in Our-People

It’s a long way from the place where lunar rovers first traversed the moon, but the new space-themed Kherson Park is just a few miles from where Boeing employees at the Kent Space Center worked on the Apollo programs that brought astronauts to the moon.

It’s that kind of history – and the work that continues in Kent today – that prompted the city to create a park that promises to inspire the next generation of space dreamers.

“As long as America has been going to space, Kent has had a significant role,” said Kent Mayor Dana Ralph. “It is still home to half of the jobs in Washington state’s growing space sector.” 

The park, which celebrated its grand opening May 20, features an interactive Lunar Rover replica and a life-sized astronaut against a backdrop photo of the moon’s surface taken during an Apollo mission. A Lunar Lander play structure and Mission Control panel are equipped with working switches and an intercom allowing kids to talk back and forth as if on their own space mission.

Kids play on Lunar Lander play structure during Kherson Park grand opening, May 20 (Boeing photo)

Boeing historian Mike Lombardi was a featured speaker at the park’s official launch celebration. He reminded the crowd that Boeing employees in Kent built three Lunar Rover Vehicles that made it possible for the astronauts of Apollo 15, 16 and 17 to explore the lunar surface.

“And those three spacecraft – yes, even though they look like a dune buggy, they are spacecraft – remain on the moon, making Kent one of the only communities in the entire world that can claim to have a spacecraft on the moon,” said Lombardi.

Smart Park: Kherson Park might be one of the smartest parks on the planet, thanks to a Boeing-sponsored augmented reality app. The free app, called Space for Kidz, allows park-goers to use a smartphone to "launch a rocket,” “drive” a Lunar Rover, and “plant a flag on the lunar surface.”

  Sara Olson takes a photo of her daughter inside astronaut replica at park grand opening, May 20 (Boeing photo) Sara Olson takes a photo of her daughter inside astronaut replica at park grand opening, May 20 (Boeing photo)

“It’s more technological than your everyday park, so definitely a lot to explore and a reason to come back, too,” said Seattle resident Sara Olson who brought her 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter to opening day. “The fact that the console communicates to the rover is pretty cool. I hope it inspires kids to pursue a career in aerospace.”

Boeing Historian Mike Lombardi hopes it inspires that too – pointing out that Kherson Park celebrates Boeing’s rich history at the Kent Space Center, but is also oriented toward the future. “It is our hope that the park and the augmented reality app will help spark visitors’ creativity about the future of space exploration.”

Boeing Alumni Honored: Several Boeing alumni who worked on Apollo, and other space programs, were honored guests during the park’s opening celebration. Harris Atkins was a reliability engineer who worked for Boeing for more than three decades, including on the Saturn V program in Huntsville, Ala.  

“The rover program took about 18 months out of a 34-year career, but it was probably the most exciting time,” said Atkins. “The concept of seeing something on the moon that you worked on was pretty thrilling.”

Dennis McKillip worked at the Kent Space Center from 1970 until 2021.

“When I came back from Vietnam I went to work for Boeing in the super clean equipment room cleaning lunar orbiters,” he said.

McKillip worked as a chemist and in contamination control on the lunar rover. Fellow Kent Space Center alum, Charles Martin, jokes that it’s McKillip’s fault his fingerprints never made it to the moon. “Because he made me wear gloves and a mask!” quipped Martin.

  Boeing alum Charles Martin (right) jokes that fellow Boeing alum Dennis McKillip (left) is the reason his fingerprints never made it to the moon. (City of Kent photo) Boeing alum Charles Martin (right) jokes that fellow Boeing alum Dennis McKillip (left) is the reason his fingerprints never made it to the moon. (City of Kent photo)

87-year-old Martin worked as an electromechanical research technician at Boeing for 40 years. He worked on the Saturn engines and the lunar orbiter that took the first pictures of the moon. So, before Neil Armstrong could take his “one small step for man” on the surface of the moon had to work, Martin and a lot of others had to work hard to get him there.

Martin marvels about his time at Boeing and the two “vehicles” that ultimately changed the course of his life.

“When I was a little kid my dad was a farmer in Missouri, and we had a horse and wagon,” he said. “When I was about 10 years old he decided he needed to move his kids to a place where they’d have a better chance of doing things. So he bought an automobile, and we drove out to Washington.”

That was the first time Martin ever rode in an automobile. Fast forward a few years and it was another “car” that would propel his life in an exciting, new direction. “I got a chance to work on a car that went to the moon,” he said.

He believes Kherson Park will inspire kids today to have even bigger dreams rooted here in Washington.

“If I can do what I did, think of what these kids can do,” Martin exclaimed. “Think of it. What in their life might they be able to do!”

By: Jane McCarthy