Chamber Made Column-April 21, 2012

The New Planetarium Puts On a Great Light Show

There was a time when I was a little girl that it seemed a summer day would never end. Soon after we awoke, my brothers, sisters and I would hastily throw on clothes, gobble down a quick breakfast and scamper down the porch stairs to the outside, even before the dew would dry. We would be called for meals, and reluctantly head back to the house, but other than that, the five of us were always outside, as were all the other children of St. Johnsbury Center, until we received that last sad call to go to bed.

Our house in the Center, back then, had a backlot that we thought to be the size of Fenway Park, and we spent many a day playing kickball, baseball and the occasional Kick the Can until our little legs would get tired. When twilight arrived, we would lay down in the cool grass, the blades tickling the backs of our necks, awaiting the stars of the summer sky to put on a light show.

It is rare these days to find an experience that transforms you right back to your childhood, but heading to the planetarium at the Fairbanks Museum has always done that for me, especially now. Recently, the museum completely renovated its planetarium and adjacent gallery, and the effect is stunning.

As I climbed the very same stairs I did as a child, at the museum’s recent open house, I could already see differences. The walls had been painted the shades of the sky, with the upper tower windows now colored. When I arrived at the top, the Vinton Space Science Gallery now greeted me, with magnificent color photographs taken from the Hubble Space Telescope placed on the wall. The gallery, supported by a gift from St. Johnsbury residents Ruth and Drury Vinton, even highlights a 17.3-pound meteorite just acquired by the museum.

Entering the planetarium, about the only feature I recognized was the dome, constructed and lifted to the ceiling back in 1961 by Danville high school students and museum junior curators. I slipped into one of the newly upholstered chairs and realized, with credits to the Wizard of Oz, that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Anyone who has ever sat through a planetarium show of old will attest that those old benches were a chiropractor’s best friend.

The newly renovated planetarium is named for Lyman Spitzer Jr., the astrophysicist who helped create the Hubble Space telescope, and there is little doubt this planetarium is a state-of-the-art facility. No worry about burned-out bulbs in the star machine anymore. The planetarium now features a high-tech, digital projection system, all contained in a single computer tablet, skillfully controlled by planetarium director Mark Breen. The Canady Family Charitable Trust, the family that Spitzer was a member of, made a generous gift towards the renovations, and it was nice to see how touched his daughter was that the planetarium is named in his honor.

Although I got a sneak peek at what this digital system offers, I cannot do this new show justice in this short column by trying to compare it to the old planetarium show. Suffice to say, it is a bit like going from a typewriter to a computer; it is that different. You would be robbing yourself of a wonderful childhood experience if you do not attend this new show with your children or grandchildren. The kids in attendance were mesmerized the night I was there, and so was I.

(Darcie McCann is the executive director of the Northeast Kingdom Chamber. She still cranes her neck to the heavens every night to check out the stars.)

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