1991 Reopening of Planetarium

November 13, 1991
Juneau Empire by Sherry Simpson

Stargazing, Juneau Style - Marie Drake's Planetarium Makes a Comeback

As blackness cloaked the room, and stars blazed on the dome overhead, Leslie Rehfield craned her neck and pointed out old friends.

There's Delphinus - the dolphin" Rehfield whispered, pointing out the kite-shaped collection of stars glowing above, courtesy of the planetarium at Marie Drake Middle School.

Picking out familiar constellation like the Dolphin and "Taurus the Bull, and Orion the Hunter, was a blast from the past for Rehfield. She remembers visiting the planetarium as a schoolchild, when every class in the district received an astronomy lesson at least once during the year.

Now a group of volunteers is making those kinds of memories possible for a new generation of schoolchildren by reviving the dormant planetarium. Rehfield has attended several of the monthly public programs, some with the
oldest of her four youngsters, 8-year-old Jessica.

"It's great to be able to bring her and say, 'I used to come here as a kid.'" Rehfield says. I'm really glad to see they're getting some use out of it".

Rescuing the equipment from virtual oblivion was one reason the volunteers banded together about a year ago.

Their presentations have been drawing lots of frustrated stargazers. One evening last week, the room filled with 40 people for one the two hour-long sessions explaining the seasons. At least a third were children, many of whom stretched out on the floor, hands behind their heads, to watch the celestial heavens revolve around them.

"Kids who grew up down south remember lying on their backs on a summer night and seeing thousands of stars, but we don't have that here," says Scott Willis, who operates the complex machinery.

It was the experience of one Juneau family three decades ago that sparked the idea for the planetarium in the first place.

Two years after Bill Overstreet and his family had moved to rainy Juneau, the family was strolling along Calhoun Avenue when young Bill Jr. pointed to the sky and said, "Look, Daddy, they have a moon up here, too."

Considering Juneau's climate, its' not terribly surprising that it would take awhile for a 5-year-old to notice there was really was a moon hovering somewhere above the clouds. Nevertheless, his son's comment stuck in Overstreet's head. After he became superintendent of schools in 1964, he presented an idea to the school board: Let's add a planetarium to plans for the new Marie Drake Junior High School.

Overstreet says he's still a little amazed that there was no fuss over the addition. The facility was, after all, expensive for the time. But when the new junior high (now a middle school) opened three years later, it included a special room with a 30 foot fome, concentric rows of seats, and a machine that could create the night sky so seldom seen in Juneau.

"It seemed to me a matter of considerable pride in the community," he says.

The district hired a full-time instructor Albert Shaw, to teacher astronomy classes geared for each grade. Shaw also gave public presentations.

Sometime after Overstreet left the superintendent's position in 1972, though, the planetarium's use dwindled and eventually nearly sputtered out. (Overstreet is not sure why, and Shaw could not be contacted.) Today the domed room is used as a full-time computer lab in the crowded school.

Efforts to resurrect the planetarium began with Bill Leighty and Nancy Waterman, with support from the school district. Most of the volunteers, including Waterman, didn't want to see a valuable teaching tool neglected, but Leighty also looks beyond to the big picture - the really big picture.

"It has to do with preserving life on planet Earth," he says. "I think in order to save the planet, you have to understand how it works, and that's what science education is all about ... I think we'll all be a lot better planetary citizens if we understand how planet Earth fits into the context (of the universe)."

The group meets weekly to discuss topics and hone their presentations. The volunteers draw on their individual interests and expertise to develop the programs, which they plan to offer to the public once a month. Past topics have included the Northern Lights, Jupiter, the moon, constellations and the Christmas star.

"I've learned a lot myself about astronomy," Waterman says. "I really have enjoyed that."

Other volunteers include a retired teacher, an amateur astronomer ad a computer programmer who put their respective talents to use as researchers, tinkerers and lecturers.

Willis, an engineer with the Alaska Power Administration, joined the group because he's concerned about the state of science education.

He thinks Juneau is an ideal place for a planetarium. Clouds, high mountains, the light of summer nights and the cold of winter night all present daunting obstacles for stargazers.

Leighty agrees. "We need it here more than elsewhere."

Juneau's planetarium is one of two in the state, and is larger than the Anchorage facility, Leighty says. Originally, the device that simulates the stars cost about $70,000. To build the 30-foot dome and new projector these days would cost between $500,000 and $1 million, he estimates.

Fortunately, despite its hiatus from regular use, the equipment remained in good condition.

"We borrowed the keys and turned it on and it worked," Leighty says.

The school district contributed money for a technician to inspect and clean the equipment. A new $300 light bulb has made the stars crisp and bright.

The projector itself was nearly the star of the show during the recent presentation. With an efficient hum, it rose automatically out of its cabinet, looking like a miniature satellite with its complex combination of meta, wire and glass. The projector globe houses the extremely bright light bulb that radiates through 1,350 holes to simulate stars on the dome above.

The projector is a sort of time machine. The controls, operated from a large console, set the machinery to project the sky as it would look from any point on Earth, at any time of day, during any year past or present. To explain the seasons, volunteers relied on models, inflatable globes, gyroscopes and other examples. But the demonstration came to life when the lights dimmed and the stars bloomed overhead in the same position Juneau residents would see them if the clouds ever disappeared.

A Sun the size of a grapefruit crept above the horizon and set quickly, demonstrating the clock-like movement of the cosmos. The planets blinked into their proper positions for this time of year.

"You can illustrate things in t he planetarium that if you tried to explain, are very complicated ideas to visualize," Willis says. "It does make things click."

With a flashlight pointer, volunteers pointed out favorite constellations - the Big and Little Dipper, Taurus, the Pleiades, Orion - and showed their positions at different times of the year. Just for grins, they projected tee night sky as seen from the Southern Hemisphere, a strange rearrangement of stars for northerners.

Most impressive was when Willis turned off all background light and let the stars blaze against the velvety blackness. A cloudy river of stars, the Milky Way, flowed across the dome.

"Oh cool," breathed one little girl.

The dramatic tactic is Willis' favorite part of the show and usually draws oohs and aahs from the crowd.

"Especially the second graders. They go 'Ooh, radical dude.'" he says.

Willis admits there's a thrill to playing master of the universe: "It's so very powerful to make the starts stop and the heavens move where you want," he says, laughing.

Besides the monthly public programs, the volunteers give sessions for schoolchildren at the request of teachers. One problem has been sandwiching those classes into the computer lab, where the only free time is over lunch.

The volunteers hope that if a new middle planned for Lemon Creek relieves classroom crowding, the planetarium can be returned full-time to its original function. Leighty and Waterman have found a source of used theatre-style seats that could be reinstalled in the space, and it's already equipped with a good sound system, which could make it once again a popular meeting room in the community as well.

A December program on the Christmas star is in the works, and future topics might include celestial navigation, the mind-boggling scales of measurement used in astronomy, and constellations of the Southern Hemisphere. Some people have requested a show in which New Age music would play and people could meditate as the stars circle in
the sky, Willis says.

Leighty says the groups accepts requests for programs from organizations. They also welcome new volunteers. For more information about the planetarium group, call 586-3278.

"I'm very pleased to learn that someone want to put that (planetarium) back to use," Overstreet says from his winter home in California.

"It seems to me if it was a good idea 25 years ago it ought to be an extraordinarily good idea these days,"

Upcoming Free Events

Tuesday, Aug 29 at 7:00 PM - 8:15 PM

Logo