The Marie Drake Planetarium

Where the stars always shine in Juneau, AK

Newspaper Articles 2008

Articles in Juneau Empire, unless otherwise indicated.
December 17, 2008
EXPLORING SPACE by Katie Spielberger - Capital City Weekly Associate Editor

On Tuesday nights, the computer lab at Harborview Elementary School undergoes a magical transformation. While the computers sleep, volunteers turn the domed ceiling into the night sky.

For years, Juneau residents have been able to see the stars even on rainy days, thanks to the Marie Drake Planetarium and the volunteers who have kept it going.

John and Dolly Kremers have been volunteering at the planetarium for the past three years, inspired by the passion of former volunteer Michael Orlove.

"Michael would always say it's like being behind the mind of the Wizard of Oz," John said, indicating the console that controls the "starball."

The starball is the centerpiece of the planetarium, a metal bulb with more than 1,400 holes which projects stars, planets, the sun and moon in the right positions to approximate the night sky as seen by the naked eye.

At the control console in the back of the room, switches and knobs have labels such as "stars," "sun," and "meteors." John expertly operates the wheels controlling the amount of yellow and blue in the "sky" to approximate a sunset, then reveals what the current sky would look like on a clear night.

A typical show will begin with a view of the night sky for that night, the Kremers said. Usually the volunteers will give a special presentation on a specific topic, such as "When galaxies collide."

During the 60's and 70's when the U.S. was engaged in the space race with the Soviets, a number of schools nationwide built planetariums and launched astronomy programs, John said. Among the lucky schools was the new Marie Drake Middle School, where the planetarium was installed in 1967 at a cost of about $70,000, with the support

of then school superintendent Bill Overstreet. The first full-time astronomy teacher, Albert Shaw, also presented public shows.

When Overstreet left his position in 1972, the planetarium fell out of disuse until 1991, when Bill Leighty and Nancy Waterman revived the starball and a group of volunteers formed to offer public programs.

Current volunteers are still eager to welcome new stargazers.

"We want to teach teachers," Dolly said, "but teachers have a lot to do besides learning the starball. We really need to get children involved who want to run the machine."

When the Kremers first started volunteering, they were impressed by the young regulars at planetarium shows, who were quick to name constellations like Leo, Taurus and Pegasus.

"I was just amazed at hearing the little voices (say) 'Oh, that's Orion!'" Dolly said.

Planetarium volunteers are always open to new ideas for themed shows or ways to use the planetarium in unique ways. There have been movie nights with films projected on the 30-foot-wide dome, Valentine's Day celebrations for starry-eyed couples - even an evening of "Yoga Under the Stars."

"Sometimes, we'll have just us show up for the show (and) sometimes the place is packed," Dolly said. Regardless, like the stars in the sky, volunteers are always there.

The first show of the season will be a Holiday Star show Dec. 23 at 6:30 p.m. Planetarium volunteers will discuss the theories about what the wise men saw in the skies Christmas night.

The starball projects the stars, sun and moon onto the planetarium's domed ceiling to create a representation of the night sky as seen by the naked eye. Planetarium volunteers make the stars shine for Juneau residents Tuesday evenings throughout the year. This season's first show is Dec. 23 at 6:30 p.m.

During each planetarium show, volunteers give everyone a free raffle ticket. The winner of the drawing gets to pick a date and a place, and with the help of the starball, everyone gets to travel to see what the sky might look like somewhere else at a different time of year. For those curious about the night sky in the Southern Hemisphere, this is a quick and easy way to travel -  all without leaving rainy Juneau.

Planetarium volunteer John Kremers operates the control console for the starball

Photos by Katie Spielberger

The starball