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From Issue #52 September 25, 2014

Under the Dome

Planetariums educate eager children and tipsy adults.

By Chris Stokel-Walker Twitter icon 

Spitz’s A1 planetarium, its first entry into the market

Every year, the museums and attractions in Newcastle, UK, participate in a citywide event called the Late Shows. These buttoned-up, 9-to-5 places of learning — hushed whispers, studious contemplation, and please, no flash photography — loosen up a bit, waive their entrance fees, push their opening hours up to and occasionally beyond midnight, and become places to learn and have fun.

And invariably — given that the spaces are open past 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday — the people taking in the artwork or wandering among the endless shelves of books in these haughty places are at varying levels of drunkenness.

Over the years I’ve wandered with friends around 150,000 dusty, musty tomes at the Newcastle Literary & Philosophical Society, the largest independent library in the UK outside of London. I’ve played joyously in the National Center for Children’s Books at the age of 24, and I’ve swing-danced with strangers.

But the best experience of the Late Shows is walking with the slight unsteadiness of a couple of glasses of wine with friends into the planetarium in the city’s Life Science Center, an operating scientific research center with an attached customer-facing theme park.

Outside the white dome, the walls reverberate with the shrieks of slightly intoxicated adults allowed to be as free as children running through a theme park, unshackled of the propriety usually demanded. But step inside and take a seat, leaning far back into the padding, and you’re transported into a far bigger world.

Fauxstronomy

“The planetarium is school, theater, and cinema in one classroom under the eternal dome of the sky,” wrote astronomer Elis Strömgren. And Spitz, one of the leading planetarium manufacturers, based in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, focuses on this educational side to the planetarium experience.

“Armand Spitz was a bit of an entrepreneur, and a very curious man,” explains Scott Huggins, the company’s director of product development, on a crackly phone line from Chadds Ford. “He used to say that if you didn’t know about a subject and wanted to learn about it, write a book about it.”

Huggins started at Spitz after encountering planetariums as a laser display technician, setting dancing beams of light playing on the inside skein of a dome to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. He tells me a story about Armand Spitz that’s likely partly a founding myth, but entertaining all the same.

Spitz was on a transatlantic voyage with his wife, loitering on the deck of the ship, looking out at the night sky spread out above him. His wife asked him if he knew anything about the stars overhead. He said, “No, I don’t. I guess I’ll go learn about them.” Soon enough, he’d learned enough to publish a book about the positions of constellations in the sky.

“Armand’s belief was that astronomy was interesting enough to enough people that he wanted to popularize the planetarium,” says Huggins. “He wanted to do this to the point that it would be in virtually every school and university in every small city in the United States.”

Armand Spitz set out to build affordable, accessible astronomical projection systems, with the idea that they would be used for scientific education. He lucked into a boom period for everything space related.

Armand Spitz inspects the A1 with two interested children.

To infinity and beyond

“The late 1950s and early 1960s were one of the highest growth periods for Spitz, due largely to the space race,” Huggins says. “There was an initiative tasked in 1958 called the National Defense Education Act, a lot of federal money available to schools to upgrade technology in schools.”

Spitz developed an early planetarium, the A3P, that fit the bill perfectly. The collection of gears, pinholes, lenses, and light sources could project up to 6,000 stars onto the artificial sky, the ideal way to capture the imagination of children of the 1960s and ’70s fully caught up in the excitement of the space race.

Painted a dull gray, pockmarked with small holes, and looking like a low-orbit satellite itself, it was of its time. And it was popular. According to Huggins, Spitz sold around 700 of these relatively portable planetariums across the United States from the early 1960s through about 1971 or 1972. “And all of that really grew out of the space race.”

Joining us on the call is Jon Shaw, a former engineer at an oil company who packed in his career 29 years ago to join Spitz. He’s been involved in sales and management, and for 13 years he has been the company’s CEO.

“You mentioned you’re in your mid-20s,” he says. “This was a whole different generation: the optical mechanical planetarium.” Moving parts, whirring engines, and physical engineering were once the norm, replaced by the world of affordable digital technology.

“We’ve ended up with full-dome video instead of just these pinpoint stars put up by a machine,” explains Shaw. “That’s done a few things. It’s allowed education to make a step forward for the Nintendo generation, if you will. They’re not just looking at stars. They can fly to other planets. They can put up more information. You can supply people with all sorts of video or true immersive environments instead of just looking up at the stars.”

Huggins, the head of product, takes up the theme. “What we’re developing now are real-time simulators that guide audiences through databases that may be astronomical or science related.

“We’re not trying to draw points of light that are two dimensional. We’re drawing a complete 3D universe, out to literally millions of lightyears. If you want to lift off from earth, land on Mars, look at the features on Mars, move to Venus and do the same thing, all of that’s at the push of a button.”

It’s a long step from the Spitz A3P. And it’s a massive undertaking for a school, university, or science center to install a planetarium. Prices start at a quarter of a million dollars for a small system, soup to nuts, including lighting and sound. For a larger dome, up to 25 meters in diameter, a planetarium can cost several million dollars. “It’s a very great expanse depending on what the specifications are and what the requirements have to be,” Shaw says.

Nevertheless, humanity’s yearning to understand, to see, and to fly amongst the stars, planets, and other bodies in outer space doesn’t diminish, which is why Spitz has more than 1,200 installations worldwide. It can take months of planning, design, and construction to install a system, from tweaking sight lines to contracting out the hewing of a specialized lens capable of beaming sharp images up onto a dome. The average planetarium lens has anywhere from 15 to 20 different elements all working in partnership, Huggins says.

The 70-foot diameter, 8,000-line resolution dome inside Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Illinois, the first planetarium in America

Space races

Comfortingly, the planetarium industry’s popularity doesn’t wax and wane with the space race or NASA’s mission-ready capabilities. The Cold War has reheated in the sparse fields of eastern Ukraine, not the far reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. And NASA’s pie-eyed flights into outer orbit are nowadays few and far between. Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Center and its ilk seemingly spend more time selling pretzels than sending human beings up into earth.

There are nearly 4,000 planetariums worldwide, the details of which sprawl across 429 pages of a directory compiled by the International Planetarium Society. There are ones in Algeria and Uruguay, in Ukraine and Australia. According to one estimate, 92 million people attend them each year, looking up with wonder at the night sky. The lure of space, and the ability to float amongst the stars, if only through the illusion of projections, still holds interest.

I had worried that the feeling I had at that first Late Show — the total relaxation, the sense of wonderment and awe when confronted with tranquil, twinkling skies — was largely caused by the alcohol diffusing into my blood and slowing my senses. So I went back a few weeks later, paid my way in, and took a seat once more in the darkness. I lay back. Really far back, so that my feet were buried deep under the seat in front of me and my body was rigid, as close to horizontal as you can get. And I realized.

The influence I was under hadn’t been alcohol at all, but an illusion so effective it lifted me up and carried me off into the night sky.

Photos courtesy of Spitz.

Chris Stokel-Walker is a UK-based freelance writer for the Economist, the Sunday Times, the BBC, and BuzzFeed.

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