By Paul Flower Photo by Dale Selvius Illustration by Kantorwassink
STARS OF WONDER Shiny Star in the Grand Rapids Culture Scene When West Michigan residents and visitors want to look at the stars, they often head to the lakeshore for a little romantic beach strolling. When they want to understand the stars and the mysteries of the universe, or simply see an out-of-this-galaxy show, they go to the Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium. There, they recline in comfortable chairs as darkness descends and the domed ceiling comes alive with everything from constellations to a mind-blowing, specialeffects-filled light show set to classic rock music. The planetarium opened in the early 1960s. In 1967, it was named in memory of Grand Rapids native Roger B. Chaffee. Chaffee was among three astronauts killed while training for the Apollo 1 space flight. From the beginning, the planetarium was an exclusive and popular feature of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, and it still is, according to Kate Moore, vice president of marketing/ public relations for the museum. “It always has been unique. And that was one of the big reasons for having a planetarium here,” Moore said. The planetarium experience has changed considerably over the decades. The facility originally featured a 30-foot plaster dome and a bulky mechanical star projector. It offered a traditional experience, showcasing the night sky in all its wonder. An early show, "Star of Wonder," which was an attempt to explain and portray the Star of Bethlehem, was a big hit and remained part of the planetarium’s offerings for years.
By 1994, the museum and planetarium had relocated to a new facility. In the years that followed, armed with more-sophisticated equipment, the facility’s personnel developed light shows and other fare, changing with the times to attract visitors.
The planetarium’s ever-evolving programming and facilities should stand out as a good sign to first-time visitors and the scores of locals who have enjoyed it over the years, ensuring the Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium is part of the West Michigan scene for generations to come.
In 2014, the museum completed a $1.2 million renovation that literally took the planetarium to the next level. The Grand Valley State University’s Office of Occupational Therapy helped choose everything from colors to lighting, all to create a more immersive visitor experience. And all of the technology was dramatically upgraded.
“I think you have to evolve, especially to continue to be relevant to the audience that is coming into the museum,” Moore said.
The renovation, of course, also meant museum staffers could offer increasingly sophisticated shows, thanks to a new, advanced production system.
If you plan to visit the museum, you can purchase admission to a planetarium show once you’ve arrived. Or you can choose to simply buy a ticket to the planetarium. All shows and schedules are featured on the planetarium’s website. grpm.org/explore/planetarium
The roster of productions has included “Starlight Safari,” which features roaring lions, howling wolves, and dozens of other animals hiding in the nighttime sky; “Dynamic Earth,” which explores the earth’s climate - everything from monster hurricanes to erupting volcanoes - with the voice of famed actor Liam Neeson providing narration; and a big hit, “Dark Side: The Light Show,” featuring the music of Pink Floyd’s legendary “Dark Side of the Moon” album. The Chaffee offers educational stargazing - you can spend an evening under the planetarium's heavens, learning about galaxies near and far. In fact, your virtual trip can now whisk you away to almost any corner of the universe. But as one recent visitor, David Mel-ton of Clarkston, put it, “It’s also a nice place to see a laser show.”
Published on Oct 18, 2016