Juneau’s Planetarium Turns 50

Marie Drake Planetarium logo

Part II in a series on outstanding volunteer-run assets in the Capital City

Marie Drake Planetarium is open. People find their seats, they look at the star ball in the center of the room. Above them is the white domed roof thirty-feet across. The place fills to capacity. Parents talk, children squirm, volunteer Steve Kocsis, welcomes the group, and gives a short presentation on what the Planetarium is up to.* Then Clark Branch dims the lights down, down, down until it’s pitch dark except for the dome which has transformed into a brilliant night sky projected by the star ball. There’s a collective inhale in the room, then a collective, “Woooow.” “The stars,” Branch says, “were there all the time. Just like stars are out during the daytime. We don’t see them because of the sun.”

History of Marie Drake Planetarium

There’s a planetarium in town. A little gem, volunteer run, that would be the envy of much larger communities. Whether its a packed public showing or cub scouts or Mrs. Kalbrener’s second graders, that “Woooow” is a constant every time the lights go down. You can teach a kid that the stars are out during the daytime but in the planetarium they know it. How in the world did we get such a thing here?

When Marie Drake School was being planned in the mid-1960’s Superintendent of Schools Bill Overstreet felt a planetarium would encourage students to pursue science, especially astronomy. In those days we were in the Space Race with Russia. There was tremendous interest. Overstreet promoted the idea with the school board and they went for it! They got a grant, built the dome (which remains the largest in Alaska) along with the school and in 1967 the Spitz** A3P, which was state of the art in affordable planetarium projectors, landed in Juneau.

It cost $70,000 which would be over half a million in today’s dollars not counting the dome—a good deal. For a half-century school children, scouts, university students, astronomy buffs and the public have gone to Marie Drake shows and more than a few Alaskans learned their first stars and constellations there. This elegant piece of machinery-science-art is a marvel; not computerized, it’s all gears and levers, mirrors, and lenses, special angular bulbs and 1,500 finely machined holes in a basketball size, hollow aluminum sphere trailing small clear baskets that send planets and other features sailing across the night. With the press of a lever it drops into or rises slowly out of its podium like a missile silo. The star ball can project the sky as you would see it from anywhere in the world. North Pole, Hawaii, or here in Juneau. We can go to the latitude of New Zealand, see the Southern Cross and watch our northern stars disappear over the horizon as we head south. Not only that, the operator can also take the sky forward and backwards in time. As former volunteer Nancy Waterman put it, “You can drive the Universe.”

The missing years and revival

In the early years there were many classroom shows and the planetarium had a paid position for the astronomy presenter. The room had reclining chairs which made the place a popular meeting venue for other functions. Over the years funding declined. The paid position disappeared. There were fewer shows and competition was keen for space in the school. By the late 1970’s the planetarium’s original chairs were pulled out and the room was rewired to be a computer lab. For a time the Spitz apparatus mostly sat quiet inside its podium. In 1991 science and renewable energy advocates Bill Leighty and Nancy Waterman connected with science teacher Teal Schneider who had the keys. Bill, an electrical engineer, describes himself as a tinkerer. He and Nancy went to a week-long planetarium training at Spitz Space Systems in Pennsylvania. The school district funded a technician to come up and service the projector. With that and a group of volunteers Leighty and Waterman put the planets back in the planetarium. I remember people going outside and pointing to constellations we’d just seen on the dome. The Big Dipper’s two pointer stars point to the north star in a line that continues on through the outside star in Cassiopeia “That W looking thing.” and continue down to those four bright stars in a square, “That’s the great square of Pegasus.” We had it. We were more connected between earth and sky than we’d been an hour before.

After Leighty/Waterman, polymath Michael Orelove took the reigns at the planetarium for several years. Michael also created the tidal gauge at Marine Park, the sundial on the dock, the planet walk on Twin Lakes, the Juneau Time Capsule in the Federal building and other quirky, and free, science exhibits you bump into unexpectedly around town.

Today the Planetarium is run by a non-profit corporation, Friends of Marie Drake Planetarium. The Friends do public presentations on the last Tuesday of every month during the school year September to May (except this month’s show, The Northern Lights, will be on Monday, February 27). Planetarium shows begin with the night sky as we see it from Juneau then move into a particular astronomy topic. Presentations are generally free to the public but donations are appreciated. For more on the planetarium there is a website www.mariedrakeplanetarium.org. To get regular updates, information on upcoming shows, or if you want to suggest a show, schedule a group showing or volunteer you can contact mariedrakeplanetarium@gmail.com and President Christina Della Rossa will put you on the mailing list.

The starball back in the day. Still going at 50.

The next 50 years

Wonderful as it is, and still excellent for learning the night sky, seasons, etc. our star ball projector faces limits with aging, as we all must. Bill Leighty says the electrical connections have always been a weak link. Planets can go out of alignment or may simply not work. State of the art planetarium projectors, by contrast, are easier to run and maintain. They’re relatively less expensive, can be adapted to existing domes like Marie Drake and are integrated into the dome which makes them vastly more versatile for science educators. Updated school planetariums are able to show dramatic events like comets, meteor storms, waves coming from two black holes combining, sky maps at different light wavelengths or what exploding stars look like from other stars. They engage students in a wrap-around experience more rich than the flat-screen internet and are flexible enough to go beyond astronomy for investigating weather patterns, hurricanes, the earth’s interior, earthquakes, and more. Friends of Marie Drake Planetarium are seeking grants to upgrade the facility with contemporary technology. I love that star ball and had a hard time coming to terms with the idea of an upgrade. It helps that the Spitz company, which still produces state of the art planetariums in Pennsylvania, quotes Einstein on its website: “We cannot educate today’s students with yesterday’s technology and expect tomorrow’s success.”

It’s been superb stargazing this winter with lots of clear nights to view the sky’s brightest stars and most dramatic constellations: big Orion, his dog Sirius at his feet, marches above the Douglas mountains. He’s facing Tarus the Bull. The twins Castor and Pollux are behind him and Leo the Lion follows behind them. If the sky is overcast they will still be there behind the clouds and they’ll still be visible at the planetarium. See you in the dark.

Upcoming events

*1) During February planetarium volunteer and adjunct professor of Astronomy Rosemary Walling is teaching two series of classes through Community Schools called Astronomy@Home. Classes are at Thunder Mountain High School. 2) In March the planetarium will be bringing visiting astronomer Dennis Mammana up from California. There will be a $5 fee for that one. Mammana has been to Juneau before and has given night photography lessons here. 3) The May public show will focus on the upcoming total solar eclipse in August.

**Named for it’s inventor, Philadelphian Armand Spitz. After his newspaper business went bankrupt Spitz sailed to Europe. Far from lights on shore he fell in love with the night sky and threw himself into astronomy. The rest is history. His first models had input from Albert Einstein, he sold over a million home planetariums which you can still find on E-Bay.