Skywatch for May 16, 2019
Mother’s Day rolls around each May, which seems fitting for a month named after Maia, a goddess of life and growth.
With the ending of the spring semester at Olivet Nazarene University, this column got out a bit later, but I trust everyone had a lovely Mother’s Day and took some time to honor and celebrate the individuals who are arguably the most important people in our lives.
Mother’s Day fell on May 12 this year, which is a calendrical conjunction with another important anniversary: the grand opening of the first planetarium built in the Western Hemisphere. The origins of the modern planetarium actually are in Germany, at the Zeiss Optics Factory in Jena between the two world wars.
Museums wanted a way to bring their audiences into the wonder of the night sky, but it was difficult to build moving models of the heavens that would include the stars and all the planets. It took an insight of Zeiss engineers to turn the idea of a simulated universe inside-out. Instead of making the sky revolve around the audience, why not project the skies from a central light source?
Then simply rotating the light source would allow the stars to appear to revolve around the audience. With that simple insight, the projection planetarium — the basis of all planetariums since — was born.
Soon after, Max Adler, former Sears & Roebuck executive, was impressed with a planetarium he had seen demonstrated in Germany and wanted to bring something similar to residents of Chicago. He funded the creation of the planetarium that now bears his name, which opened on his birthday, May 12, in 1930.
The Adler Planetarium has been a fixture in the city for the 89 years since.
What many people don’t realize about the Adler, however, is that it also has become home to one of the finest collections of historic astronomical instruments and manuscripts in North America. Besides the planetarium itself, a visit to the Adler isn’t complete without seeing the galleries in the lower level that include things such as Arabic astrolabes from the Middle Ages and telescopes of Galileo and William Herschel.
After the Adler was constructed, other planetariums opened in a few major cities across the U.S. Yet, it wasn’t until after World War II that planetariums truly proliferated, becoming fixtures in communities and campuses across the nation.
There were two primary catalysts for this. The first was the launch of Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957, and the resultant fear the U.S. was falling behind the Soviet Union in the technological competition that would become known as the Space Race.
As a result, funding for science education swelled, and planetariums were built to train and inspire the next generation of young Americans.
The second factor for the expansion of planetariums midcentury was the invention by Armand Spitz of a small, inexpensive projector that put planetarium technology within reach of many more institutions. The Strickler Planetarium, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, had its origins during this period and for decades projected the sky using its venerable SpitzA4 projector.
The climax of this scramble in space education and development, which played out below in the design and construction of planetariums while the Space Race continued overhead, was another event that will be commemorated this summer across the country and the world: the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, which took place July 20, 1969 — 50 years ago this summer.
It was on this date Neil Armstrong uttered the first words from the moon’s surface: “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”
What feels especially significant today though are the words that Armstrong revealed when he uncovered the plaque mounted on the landing module (which remained on the moon). The plaque bears two drawings of the Earth (both Eastern and Western hemisphere) and the words, “We came in peace for all mankind.”
It’s a moment that rightly should be celebrated, and science centers, museums, libraries and planetariums across the country are doing just that.
Here in Bourbonnais at the Strickler Planetarium we will be commemorating the celebration with special showings of an extended edition of “Dawn of the Space Age,” a presentation that covers the history of spaceflight, culminating in the historic moon landing, two upcoming weekends June 1 and June 15.
In celebration of the 50th anniversary, admission to these shows will be 50 cents per person.
For more information, visit strickler.olivet.edu, and keep looking up.