The board of supervisors enthusiastically approved a motion on June 28 that will set aside land in the township for a museum devoted to the history and the legacy of innovation of the former Naval Air Development Center (NADC).
In a unanimous vote, the supervisors granted the nonprofit Johnsville Centrifuge & Science Museum the use of five acres of land located at the northwest corner of Hatboro and Bristol roads and across Hatboro Road from the Northampton Municipal Park for the home of its proposed museum.
“This is going to be a place where there will be items that are no where else in this country,” said Supervisor Larry Weinstein. “That is an amazing win for Northampton Township that I believe will bring in tourism dollars and be a gem for the residents of this township to go and enjoy.”
Supervisors Chairman Barry Moore jokingly added, “I’m very glad we kind of beat out the township across the street,” he said to laughter. “It’s going to be a great addition to the park.”
The passive recreation site is located on a 39 acre tract deeded to the township by the National Park Service as part of the Base Realignment and Closure process. It is currently home to a natural wildflower area, a rain garden and a trail that loops through the placid acreage.
Michael Maguire, president of the museum, enthusiastically welcomed the vote, which has been a long time coming for the group which has been working for years on the museum project and finding the right site.
Maguire said his group plans to build a facility at the site that will house and display interactive exhibits, historic artifacts and archival materials related to the unique history of the NADC.
In addition, the museum would include a gift shop and a multipurpose room for educational and recreational activities. Recreational and learning programs will provide activities for residents both young and old.
The goal, according to the museum’s website, is to “inspire our youth by highlighting the legacy of innovation born of NADC. Among other things, our plans include science exhibits that explain the practical applications of the innovations developed at NADC/NAWC and their importance to our nation’s history.”
Maguire noted, “One of the things we found is the site is not just of local, but national and even international interest,” said Maguire, noting that when they tried the concept out eight years ago on a temporary basis five percent of the visitors – one out of 20 – were international. “It was embarrassing. There were people from around the world that knew more about our own place in history then some Americans.
“I think it will be a great thing – a National and international attraction,” he said of the museum.
The motion authorizing use of the land for the museum received an enthusiastic show of support from the board of supervisors.
“I am very happy and proud that Northampton Township is going to be home to your museum,” said supervisor Eileen Silver, adding that she remembers years ago when she was working as an elementary teacher the museum visiting her classroom and providing the students with “an educational experience they’ll never forget.”
Supervisor Dr. Kimberly Rose added, “I’m very excited for this. I’ve seen how hard you have worked for this and I’m so excited to get a science museum right here in Northampton Township. I am very pleased.”
Supervisor Frank O’Donnell welcomed the future addition to the township and underscored the importance of the museum’s mission of preserving the history of the NAWC and sharing it with future generations.
“That site is such an important part of the history of naval aviation,” said O’Donnell. “And when you look at the Mercury program and the other programs that followed it, it’s really unique.”
The facility would be built as a multi-phase project with phase one providing an outdoor exhibition structure to house NADC artifacts. Subsequent phases would include full museum build-out.
Under the agreement, the township will lease the land to the museum for 30 years with the option of two consecutive 10 year renewals. The agreement also includes a clause that if the museum fails to raise a minimum of $100,000 within five years of the effective date of the agreement the township can terminate the deal.
Among many other things, the NADC played an important role in Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program of the United States, running from 1958 through 1963.
The center was the home to the world’s largest human centrifuge gondola, which allowed astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs to experience the effects of high G-forces that they would later be subjected to during launches.
Among those who trained on the gondola was Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, one of the original seven U.S. astronauts who became the first American in outer space on May 5, 1961, also trained at on the gondola.
Shepard was hailed as a national hero with parades in several cities and President John F. Kennedy awarded him with a medal. More importantly, Shepard’s “foot in the space door” launched America’s manned space program, which eventually overtook the Soviet Union’s and culminated with the first moon landing, Apollo 11, in July 1969. Shepard himself would walk on the moon in 1971 as the commander of Apollo 14.
Another astronaut who trained on the gondola was John Glenn, the first American to obit the earth on Feb. 20, 1962. He went on to serve 25 years in the U.S. Senate and entered space history again in 1998 when, at the age of 77, he became the oldest person to fly in space on Space Shuttle Discovery.
After its days of spinning astronauts were over, the gondola became part of the collection at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington. In 2011 the original gondola that Shepard and Glenn trained in during Project Mercury was returned to Warminster. The arrival of the gondola on May 5 coincided with the 50th anniversary of Shepard’s first flight.
For more information about the museum, visit nadcmuseum.org