Last Thursday, Lilly went on a field trip with her Montessori class to the Cernan Space Center, which is part of Triton College in River Grove, Illinois, which is northeast of where we live. I told her she had been there before, and she denied it — the name certainly didn’t mean anything to her. But afterwards she said she did remember it.
It was a long time ago for her — last fall. We went because I had read about it, but had never been. It has a small collection of items on display, including an Apollo test capsule (all the real capsules are in bigger-budget museums, I’m sure) and one of Eugene Cernan's space suits, from Apollo X; he was also on Apollo XVII, and walked on the Moon. He grew up in the vicinity of River Grove, and so got his name affixed to the facility, as a hometown astronaut.
It's a nice little planetarium, with stadium seating. The older ones don't have that, making viewers crane their necks sometimes. The show we saw that afternoon was for children, ages 3-8 supposedly, and it wasn't bad. Lilly seemed to like it, especially the pictures of the nine planets. Previously, I had encouraged her to draw pictures of the planets, with some success. Pluto is still a planet, according to Triton College. Good deal.
From about 1970 to about 1974 I went to the planetarium at San Antonio College once a month. Instead of a taped presentation, those were narrated live — all sorts of space subjects, including annual favorites like “What Was the Star of Bethlehem?” and shows with local color, “The Sky on the Night the Alamo Fell.” In those days, they didn't have any shows for small fry. No kids under six allowed, I remember. If you were an older kid, you went in and watched the same show as the adults.
Planetariums (-ia) are another venue that shouldn’t be limited to youthful audiences. While I don’t visit one every month any more (though I might start again someday, to take my daughters), I occasionally still visit them, especially when I’m in another town. Unfortunately, the quality of the scripts often doesn’t live up to the marvel of the planetarium itself, with its blank dome enlivened by pinpoints of light from a pockmarked machine that looks like no other kind of machine.
One especially bad show I recall was years ago in Memphis. “There are many neat things in the sky,” was the theme of the show, “and we’re going to talk about them more or less at random. And we’re going to assume you don’t know a damn thing about astronomy.”
In Hong Kong, on the other hand, I saw a terrific show that didn’t involve astronomy at all. It was about putting out the Kuwait oil well fires in 1991, presented at the Star Theatre of the Hong Kong Space Museum, located prominently at the southern tip of Kowloon. An overhead dome works well for that story: blazing wells all around you, across a wide spread of desert. But the scriptwriter did more than make a spectacle out it. There was narration and pics of the Gulf War leading up to the Iraqi arson, and then an intelligent discussion of how the engineers went about capping these wells, and how they did it faster than anticipated, and what some of the lingering environmental unknowns were.
It was in English, by the way; shows alternated between English and Cantonese, but there were earplugs that offered other languages as well, such as Mandarin and Japanese. It was a fine planetarium all around.