I grew up going to the Longway Planetarium in Flint, Mich. I thought the entire place was magic, from the space-themed lobby where you could buy astronaut ice cream and drop coins into the plastic funnel-shaped gravity well, to the foyer that wrapped around the dome, painted with glowing constellations and illuminated by black lights.
Once inside, the dome itself there was the mysterious bulk of the projector looming like a mechanical insect. I remember being amazed how, once the lights dimmed, that machine somehow filled the darkness with stars.
My cousin told me once when she was little, she thought the planetarium worked because the dome was coated in a special paint that made the stars visible by daylight. Had that been the truth, it wouldn’t have seemed more amazing to me than a star projector that could make you feel as though you were suspended in space.
At the Longway, I learned that planetariums are in some sense sacred spaces — places that put people in touch with the wonder of a universe slowly fading from view in light-polluted skies. I realized as a kid, I wanted to work in a place like that, a place that made that wonder visible again, to everyone.
As an undergraduate, a major draw to study at Olivet was that it had its very own planetarium. I went to work inside it as a student when it still had its venerable Spitz A4, the smaller, spindly cousin of the Longway’s massive projector.
When I was an undergrad, the planetarium field was changing. Two experiences in particular shaped my perception of what new planetariums could do and be. The first was a demonstration I saw at a conference on a portable dome of the then-new Digistar 3 system — the first full-color digital planetarium I had ever seen.
As vibrant canvases of Van Gogh paraded across the dome, I realized that a planetarium could be used for much more than just astronomy. It could be an immersive template for the arts and humanities as well.
The second experience was a demonstration of the American Museum of Natural History’s Digital Universe software. This was a computer program that plotted astronomical data in three dimensions and allowed the user to manipulate it, flying through the solar system, galaxy, and on into intergalactic space.
The effect was staggering. As I explained to students in semesters that followed, when we used the free software in astronomy labs, anyone now had the ability to fly through a map of the entire known universe.
Years later, those summer experiences have come together as a generous alumni gift funded a comprehensive upgrade of the Strickler Planetarium’s digital projection system. In my time at Olivet’s planetarium we have gone from the classical opto-mechanical system (the old Spitz) to, a decade ago, an upgrade to that first full-color digital system.
Now we’ve taken another giant leap forward with the installation of a brand-new Digistar 6. Among other things, this system integrates the Digital Universe program, giving visitors the opportunity to pilot the planetarium from the Earth’s surface to the edge of the observable universe.
What this means for groups who have visited the planetarium in the past is the ability to supplement all our previous offerings with a host of new interactive visualizations customized for interest or curriculum. What it means for our students at Olivet is an entirely new platform for creating their own original content.
The new system was installed just before the semester began, so we will remain closed for public shows (but still are open for private groups) throughout September as we learn our way around the new system. Then, we’ll run our famous Hallowe’en shows throughout October, with the official premier of our new system taking place in conjunction with the return of our “Sesame Street” show in November.
In December, we’ll be premiering a brand-new show run completely on the new system, Skywatch Live. This will be an interactive presentation exploring the month’s astronomical highlights, the season’s constellations and updates on current space missions. For a full schedule of public shows this season, visit strickler.olivet.edu. (While you’re there, be sure to join our mailing list for more updates.)
And what about that kid who first felt a sense of wonder at the stars in Flint’s Longway Planetarium? I still get to share that wonder with visitors to Olivet’s planetarium. But now, the story has come full circle.
In my first semester teaching at Olivet, there was a bright young science education major in my astronomy course. He went on to a career in the planetarium field and now is the director of the Longway Planetarium — the place where my own journey began. And if you join us for our Hallowe’en show in October, you’ll see some of his creative endeavors on the dome.
The new Strickler Planetarium is open. Come fly the universe.