The Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium is located inside the Grand Rapids Public Museum, situated downtown along the banks of the lovely Grand River. The planetarium guide, Kenny, has just informed me that “the best seats are towards the back,” and so I make my way down the asymmetrical aisle (designed for easy access to planetarium seating) and choose a reclining chair that lines the back wall. A few seats to my right, a little girl in a pink sweater is using her father as a reclining chair instead of choosing her own. She can hardly contain her excitement for the show to begin and squirms in her “seat” while asking her father things like, “How does the space travel in here?”
The glowing ceiling above me is lined at the bottom in rainbow LED lights and covered with what looks like drifting clouds. Though I smiled to myself when I heard the little girl’s question earlier, I now realize I’m wondering the very same thing – just how does the “space” travel in here? The ceiling looks as though it could go on for miles! This immersion is the result of the planetarium’s recent 1.2 million dollar renovation. It now features the latest Digistar projection technology and an enveloping surround sound system, which work together to give you the illusion of traveling through space.
The lights begin to dim and Kenny informs us that the show will open with a short tribute to Roger B. Chaffee. For those of you that don’t recognize the name, as I hadn’t prior to this visit, I’ll fill you in on the basics. Chaffee was a Grand Rapids-born engineer, pilot and NASA astronaut who quickly became a national hero when his journey to space was cut short in a fire that consumed the 1967 Apollo 1 spacecraft. The Grand Rapids community was deeply grateful for Chaffee’s contributions and, shortly after the accident, dedicated the already existing planetarium to their beloved hometown hero. What an incredible local historical figure!
The feature presentation begins and I look around to notice the glowing faces of the people around me. Everyone is staring up in wonder, and I imagine that we look like the people in the grandstands gazing up at one of the Apollo launches so many years ago. Tonight we are watching, “Violent Universe,” one of four programs showing this month at the planetarium, which is narrated by Patrick Stewart (awesome, no?) and takes you on a journey through the chaotic cosmos. I’m surrounded by people of all ages – young couples out for a date night, children accompanied by their parents, groups of friends just hanging out. The planetarium makes for a night of entertaining education that’s easy on the wallet, and I’m glad I’m not the only one taking advantage of this local treasure!
With the launch of the new TV series hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, it seems like space entertainment is becoming increasingly popular. Whether you watch the show or not, why not visit the Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium and take another quick trip to the stars? What other planetariums around the state get you excited?