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Star-studded Return

Updated Planetarium Opening at the Air Force Academy

A grand opening for the Air Force Academy’s Planetarium & STEM Center is planned for the spring.

A grand opening for the Air Force Academy’s Planetarium & STEM Center is planned for the spring.

Judy Cara sifts through a file filled with old black and white photos, pulling out one showing a long line of people waiting to enter the planetarium at the Air Force Academy.

“This was the kind of pull the planetarium had in the old days,” she says. Her goal is to generate that same kind of excitement when the academy’s planetarium reopens after being in mothballs for 15 years; she’s the project manager for the new Planetarium & STEM Center.

The planetarium opened in 1959 – the year the first USAFA class graduated – and for 45 years served cadets while entertaining and educating visitors with programs about astronomy, flight and navigation. At its peak, the planetarium received more than 200,000 visitors a year. That visitor traffic slowed, though, as academy officials stopped advertising the planetarium and reduced staff, and in 2004 the planetarium was closed to the public. And with celestial navigation no longer taught at the academy, the planetarium sat unused.

“It’s just been completely empty since 2004,” Cara says.

That will no longer be the case, though, thanks to the generosity of an academy graduate – and his fond memories of the planetarium.

John Martinson is a 1970 graduate of the Air Force Academy. His major was aeronautical engineering – and the planetarium was a focal point of his education. 

“It was also,” he says, “a popular place for my family and friends to visit as well. The parking lot there outside of Harmon Hall on weekends would be full of tourists and people at the academy going to that planetarium. … It was very, very popular.”

Eager to see the planetarium restored as a vibrant education and entertainment hub, Martinson – who was already a “steady donor” to the academy – donated $1.25 million to launch an effort to renovate the facility. The United States Air Force Academy Endowment sought additional donors; in all, it’s a $5 million project, with half from donations and the other half from the Air Force.

Work began last year. From the outside, the structure won’t look any different. “One interesting challenge,” Cara says, “is that the building is part of the historic area of the academy, so we aren’t allowed to make any changes to the outside.”

However, the technology used inside, including advanced digital projection and surround sound capability, will be much more advanced than when Martinson was a cadet. Back then, he says, “the technology was very cumbersome. I remember working there and literally having to move the lights by pulleys and things.”

A grand opening is planned for the spring. But school groups will make use of the planetarium before that. Enhancing the academy’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) outreach is one of the missions of the updated facility. That’s a cause close to Martinson’s heart; he supports STEM programs in his area. (He has lived in Pennsylvania and New Jersey since leaving the Air Force.) 

Cara expects “lots and lots” of school field trips to the planetarium, with students not just watching shows but taking part in hands-on activities such as building robots, working on drones or conducting chemistry experiments. “Schools are excited about having a full-day experience,” she says.

Schoolkids are just one of the intended audiences. The planetarium could also be a key attraction for visitors as the academy’s most well-known building – the Cadet Chapel, touted as the most-visited manmade attraction in Colorado – is scheduled to close at year’s end for several years of renovation work.

“The planetarium will give our visitors an opportunity to do something else while they’re out here,” Cara says. While people watch from the comfort of state-of-the-art reclining seats, the planetarium will display shows related to astronomy and other topics; one film already secured by the planetarium is “Fighter Pilot,” which was originally made for the IMAX screen and shows aerial exercises in the Nevada desert. One of Cara’s colleagues, meanwhile, is creating 360-degree shows capturing various experiences around the academy. The idea of laser shows is also being explored, with some of those shows perhaps developed by cadets.

There also are interesting applications for cadet use, Cara says. The academy observatory is getting a new telescope — probably in fall 2019, she says — and while the observatory is too small to handle a crowd, images seen through the telescope could be transmitted to the planetarium for viewing by cadets and the public. And with some cadets developing payloads for the International Space Station, faculty is working with NASA and SpaceX to arrange for live feeds for those cadets to watch when their payloads go up. Cadet clubs could also make use of the facility.

With space for 110 people, the planetarium can also serve as a meeting room, Cara says.

“We’re just thrilled it’s going to be such a great community resource.” 

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