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Remembering original Hayden Planetarium

Jan 1, 2003

Since 1935, the old Hayden Planetarium that Art Deco icon of New York City has been a source of fun and scientific satisfaction for millions of children. They spent happy days on school trips exploring the dark halls where meteorites and star maps reared up in the semi-darkness. Countless number of children, lucky enough to have the Planetarium in their vicinity, would sit in the old Sky Theater watching as the Zeiss projector flashed images of the constellations on the dome. The seats were always a little loose, and the carpet threadbare, but the show was always exciting.

When I was a young boy my father would bundle me on the subway from the Bronx every Saturday morning so that I could attend lectures at the Planetarium. I can't say I was enthusiastic at the time; I would have rather spent those mornings playing football with my pals. But my father was not one to be denied, and so for a couple of years my Saturdays were spent in learning how to make telescopes and finding Orion.

Years later, when I hadn't become an astronomer, but a sailor, I was invited to teach celestial navigation at this venerable institution. Twice a week for two years I went down to the old buildingunchanged since I was a childdelighted that I was now teaching there. Every time I entered those dark old halls, where the exhibits hadn't been changed since I was in the fourth grade, it was like entering a time machine. The Planetarium, in truth, was getting a tad shabby, but I didn't care.

The shabbiness was apparent to more than me, for in 1997 the planetarium was shut down and demolished, and in its place, at the cost of $210 million, has risen a resource appropriate for the next century of children, who are growing up as comfortable with computers as an earlier generation was with television. The new structure, called the Rose Center for Earth and Space, has as its centerpiece the Hayden Planetarium.

Designed by the firm of James Stewart Polshek, the new structure is both a delight to see from outside and to experience from within. The physical structure is a joy. An 87-foot sphere is enclosed in a 120-foot glass cube. The immense glass curtain walls of the cube are held in place with an intricate web of stainless steel rod rigging that conjures up the standing rigging on some gigantic sailing ship. And that is not an accident: the architect in charge of this phase of the operation, Todd Schliemann, is an avid sailor whose uncle taught navigation at the U.S. Naval Academy. For the struts and 5/8-inch stainless rod rigging Schliemann turned to Tim Eliassen who founded Navtec rigging and now runs TriPyramid, a company specializing in this type of engineering (www.tripyramid.com).

The new Rose Center for Earth and Science is immense at 330,000 square feet. The ceiling rises up 10 feet higher than the interior of Grand Central Station. The displays, many of which are interactive, are devoted to understanding the universe and the place that we earthlings have in the big picture. The emphasis of the displays is not geocentric, as were the exhibits in the old planetarium. This is very much a heliocentric explanation of the cosmos.

The sphere houses the Hayden Planetarium. Its upper hemisphere is the new Space Theater, while the lower half contains a laser recreation of the Big Bang. The focal point of the Space Theater is the new Mark 1X Zeiss projector, called the Universarium and designed specifically for the Rose Center. The Mark 1X is equipped with eight projectors and is capable of rotating on three axes. The new auditorium is plush, the seats comfortable, and unlike a movie theater every seat is a good one. The Mark 1X takes the visitor though a serious cosmic trip at warp speed. We leave the earth, and off we go with a rumbling in the seats that makes one feel as if the subway is about to crash through the floor, out past the planets, into the cosmos to other galaxies, and into a black hole. It's very stimulating. The projector itself is a thing of great delicacy and beauty. Unlike its predecessor, which looked like a giant ant, the new Zeiss Mark 1X rises from the floor with the grace of a Fabergé Egg. According to Neil De Grasse Tyson, head of the Planetariumwho also visited there as a child, spurring on his interest to become an astrophysicistthe Mark 1X "is the most realistic depiction of the cosmos ever attempted." Not only does the projector provide images but it also has the capability of connecting to a live hookup from the Hubble telescope and other sources so that "breaking cosmic events can be viewed in real time."

Although I didn't witness it, the fact sheet on the Mark 1X has some particular interest to the readers of Ocean Navigator. According to the information, for the first time the navigational triangle, integral to celestial navigation, can be represented on the dome. The fact sheet goes on to say that this "is a must for navigation training." Perhaps Ocean Navigator can arrange to do a seminar in the dome.

David Berson is a freelance writer, licensed captain, and navigation instructor who lives in Greenport, N.Y.


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