Shaking Up the Planetarium Universe

Shaking Up the Planetarium Universe

The investment of $210 million for New York’s Rose Center for Earth and Space is one of the most dramatic events to occur in the planetarium world in years. Built on the site of the old Hayden Planetarium,  across the street from Central Park on the upper west side of Manhattan, the new 300,000-square-foot facility is expected to attract an additional 1 million visitors (above the number that  had attended in year’s past) in the coming year, officials say.
“This project is unprecedented,” says John Mosley, program supervisor for Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory. The only thing to even approximate this kind of project, he says, is the $72.5 million being spent in California to build a new facility for the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland. That project is expected to attract roughly 250,000 visitors a year.
Within the scheme of science education, planetariums are considered an important tool for exciting youngsters and the general public about the wonders of the universe.
“If you want to talk about how the universe works, go to a planetarium and it is all there,” says Geoff Chester, spokesman for the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.  It is the next best thing to actually dragging a person outside and sticking their nose on the telescope.”
Astronomer John Mosley, program director for the Griffith Observatory, describes them as the bridge between research science and the rest of the world.
“Research astronomers are busy doing research. They are not very good at explaining things,” he says. “We are the interface between what is being discovered and the world. We show you what you can’t normally see.”
  But many planetariums around the country suffer from lack-luster funding and aging facilities.
“A lot of them have fallen into disrepair, and nobody wants to fork over the capital to improve them,” Chester says. 
He and other planetarium professionals hope Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson’s success with the Rose’s Hayden Planetarium will inspire other cities to increase their support for these facilities.
The original Hayden Planetarium, built at a cost of $165,650 with funds from a municipal bond and donations from philanthropist and amateur astronomer Charles Hayden, first opened to the public on Oct. 3, 1935. At the  time, it was the nation’s fourth planetarium. Chicago’s Adler Planetarium was the first, opening in 1930. Philadelphia’s Fels Planetarium opened in 1933 and Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory opened a few months before Hayden in May, 1935. Together these facilities helped launch a national fascination with astronomy and before long, planetariums were springing up everywhere.
The new Hayden Planetarium features the nation’s first Zeiss Mark IX Star Projector and a Digital Dome System that transports audiences through a recreation of the Milky Way Galaxy and beyond. The Cabot Space & Science Center, scheduled to open this summer, is the only other planetarium in the country that will have a Zeiss IX projector.
While it is not unusual for planetariums to have scientists on staff and on their boards of directors, most do not have formal affiliations with postsecondary institutions, Chester says. Tyson’s relationship with Princeton and the Hayden Planetarium presents exciting new possibilities for the field.
“The fact that he holds both positions means that he has a great stage from which to promote science and act as an a leading explicator for his field and science in general,” says Dr. Sylvester James Gates, a physicist at the University of Maryland and long-time acquaintance of Tyson.
Under Tyson’s leadership, the Hayden will not only offer a full range of astronomy exhibits and educational programs geared for children and the general public, but will also house an astrophysics department that will conduct scholarly research in collaboration with Princeton University.                             
   — Cheryl D. Fields



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