Vintage planetarium is renovated for 21st century

By Lori O'Brien


SPRINGFIELD The oldest operating planetarium in the country the Seymour Planetarium at the Springfield Science Museum went through a rebirth of sorts last month.

For many years, the planetarium has closed in September for general maintenance involving cleaning equipment and lenses and any repairs that might be needed, according to Richard Sanderson, curator of physical science at the Springfield Science Museum. His position includes managing the planetarium.

"September is typically the quietest month of the year because summer has ended and school visits haven't yet begun," said Sanderson during an interview with Reminder Publications.

"Since public and school programs in the planetarium take place six days a week, it is impossible to undertake major renovations, maintenance, or upgrades at any other time without canceling shows," he added.

Last month was devoted to a restoration of a portion of the large dome-shaped ceiling onto which the stars are projected.

"Some cracks had formed near the bottom edge of the plaster dome," said Sanderson, adding "these cracks were repaired and painted so that the dome now looks almost as good as new, despite the fact that it is nearly 70 years old."

The Seymour Planetarium was designed and built from 1934 to 1937 by two Chicopee residents, Frank and John Korkosz.

"When it opened in 1937, there were five other planetariums in the country, but since then, all five have been replaced by newer models, leaving ours as the oldest," said Sanderson.

Sanderson explained that the stars move through space but they are so far away that their patterns haven't changed perceptibly over the past few thousand years, so the sky projected by the planetarium is as accurate today as it was in 1937. In addition, the installation of a computerized automation system in 1998, which controls a battery of auxiliary projectors and special effects, enables the planetarium to offer the latest multi-media shows.

"Over the years, celebrities have occasionally paid visits to the planetarium, including actor Clark Gable in 1939 and, more recently, astronaut Story Musgrave," said Sanderson.

For area residents who haven't visited the planetarium in years or ever now is an ideal time to consider a trip to the museum.

"Since their invention by the Zeiss Corporation in 1923, planetariums have been recognized as outstanding tools for helping people learn about the wonders of space," said Sanderson. "Today, computers can display graphics of the night sky for various dates and times, but computers can't provide the breathtaking experience of actually sitting under a starry sky or soaring through space."

Using the planetarium, Sanderson said they can speed up time, travel to different parts of the world, voyage through space, and display rare cosmic events like comets and northern lights as they would actually appear in the night sky.

"For residents of the greater Springfield area, a view of the real night sky in all its beauty requires not only clear weather, but also a long drive to get away from city lights and smog," he noted. "At the planetarium, the night sky is always dark and clear and filled with sparkling stars and constellations. In addition, our planetarium educators, who are all experienced stargazers, are present to interpret the night sky for visitors."

Planetarium shows average about 40 to 45 minutes in length. Weekend shows offered this fall include the "Magic Sky" at 1 p.m., a song-filled exploration of the sun, moon and stars aimed at children ages three to seven; "Oceans in Space" at 2 p.m., a journey through time and space in search of life beyond the Earth, suitable for ages seven and older, and "Stars Around the Campfire" at 3 p.m., a look back at the way early people interpreted the night sky through ancient myths and legends. The planetarium also features "Night Sky," Tuesdays through Fridays at 2 p.m., that provides a tour of the stars, planets and constellations currently visible.

Planetarium shows are $3 for adults and $2 for ages 17 and younger, in addition to regular museum admission.

Members of the Springfield Stars Club are also active at the Springfield Science Museum and host Stars Over Springfield programs on the first Friday of every month. Club members will set up telescopes for public sky-gazing on the Quadrangle on Oct. 6 at 7:30 p.m. The program will be conducted rain or shine, however, if it is overcast, a planetarium show will be presented instead in the Seymour Planetarium. Admission is $3 for adults and $2 for children 17 and younger.

For more information on the planetarium, Sanderson can be reached at (413) 263-6800, ext. 318.

The Springfield Science Museum is located at the Quadrangle on Edwards Street off Chestnut Street. Free parking is available in the Edwards Street lots.