The 1960s was a decade of space exploration and flights to the moon, when John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and other astronauts were national heroes.
It was also a time when the nation, worried about Soviet advances in space, poured money into science education. So it was no surprise that many schools built planetariums – like the one at Williamsville North High School.
The school, which opened the year Armstrong took his first steps on the moon, was one of hundreds across the country that got federal funding to add an astronomy theater. Lackawanna High School built one, too. So did Maryvale Middle School and Niagara County Community College.
More than four decades later, many schools struggle to keep the aging facilities running. But the country’s educators today are again making a push to interest students in science and technology, and two old planetariums – at SUNY Buffalo State and Williamsville North – are building for that future.
“People are seeing the value of the planetarium as a place where it’s not just a regular classroom,” said Kevin Williams, director of the Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium at Buffalo State, which is slated to reopen in 2018 with a brand-new facility. “There are things that you can’t do anywhere else but a planetarium.”
In Williamsville, roughly 20,000 students and amateur astronomers still learn about constellations and planets in the school’s Space Lab Planetarium each year.
But when the planetarium six years ago replaced the seats and added new digital technology that allows it to show immersive video, its age showed. The roof leaked. The dome sagged. Seams were visible.
“It’s like getting a new screen in a movie theater. You can have a great projector, but if you have a lousy screen, the picture isn’t going to look as good as it could,” said Mark Percy, the planetarium’s director. “It takes away from the reality of the experience when you see a big roof leak.”
Like other school districts, Williamsville didn’t have the money in its regular budget to rebuild the planetarium. But a group of parents and volunteers who raise money for special projects through a nonprofit foundation obtained a $290,000 state grant with the help of State Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer to replace the dome, repair the roof and upgrade computer equipment that controls the mechanical star projector.
The planetarium – which also hosts public astronomy classes – will hold its first open house on Wednesday since reopening last month.
“The old dome, it was just a thin aluminum skin,” Percy said. “This is a big robust structure that’s got a perfectly tuned reflective surface. You really noticed all those flaws in the old dome, and now it looks spectacular.”
It’s not just stars and planets that come to life in the planetarium any more. School groups can be immersed in a hurricane, see ancient Egyptian ruins, experience architecture, explore the body or travel virtually to the edge of the solar system.
“It’s taking you someplace different,” Percy said. “You’re completely surrounded in live video of what you’re looking at; so it’s not that you’re wearing 3-D glasses, but it’s all around you involving your peripheral vision.”
In March, the planetarium will bring in lunar samples from the Apollo missions for an open house. And, for a little non-science fun, the planetarium holds rock ’n’ roll laser shows on Friday nights.
At Buffalo State, a three-phase project to build a new science and math complex on campus closed a 50-seat planetarium that was first built in 1964 and reopened in 1980 after a fire. A new, 35-foot-wide dome planetarium will be a centerpiece of a glass lobby planned for the building for the third phase of construction. The project received a $1 million gift that will be used for a new projector and other planetarium expenses.
In the meantime, Buffalo State plans to buy a portable planetarium this spring that can be used for college classes, student field trips and public presentations while the permanent theater is closed.
Other planetariums built in the 1960s and early 1970s in Western New York are in varying states of use. At Lackawanna High School, students use a 20-seat planetarium for earth science and astronomy courses. This summer, a two-day discovery space camp for elementary and middle-school children stopped at the planetarium.
The planetarium at Maryvale Middle School, however, has gone dark. The school district hasn’t had the funds to operate it for several years, said James Maloney, assistant superintendent.
At Niagara County Community College, the school’s planetarium hasn’t had a director since the mid-1990s, said Usha Pande, a physics professor who uses the facility for her astronomy students. The college has included planetarium renovations in earlier master plans, but the project has not moved forward.
Similar budget constraints have affected planetariums across the country that were built during the space race.
“With staffing shortages at some places, they don’t use the planetariums a lot, and as people are looking for space for even just things like storage, some planetariums have shut down,” Williams said. “And unfortunately, it’s more expensive to have a planetarium close and then to reopen than it is to keep it going.”
While budgets have been cut and facilities have aged since the days of the space race, Dave Weinrich, past president of the International Planetarium Society, believes interest in the sky hasn’t waned.
“People still continue to look up at the night sky and wonder what’s out there,” said Weinrich, who runs the planetarium at Minnesota State University Moorhead. “Coming to the planetarium is one of the better ways to get a guided tour.”
Williams said an emphasis on boosting science, technology, engineering and math education and the ability to expand programs with digital video is reviving interest in ensuring planetariums remain open.
The new planetarium planned for Buffalo State will have a digital projector that will allow it to show immersive video programs.
Williamsville North has had that capability since 2007, and regularly brings in students for programs on everything from the human body to extreme weather. Public programs include astronomy classes, scout nights and laser shows.
“You’re able to have that immersible experience where you’re inside the science,” Percy said. “It really can present material in ways that you can’t see anywhere else.”
As they expand into new shows, neither facility has lost its original function – to simulate the night sky regardless of light pollution or daylight.
“One way of saying it is being able to see the night sky the way it was meant to be seen,” Williams said.
That means children can explore the stars, even when the weather won’t cooperate.
“As you notice in Buffalo, it’s cloudy a lot,” Percy said. “We can make a beautiful night sky any time we want.”