Planetariums are cool.
My earliest memory of visiting a planetarium is from grammar school, probably third or fourth grade. I remember seeing the big dome, feeling the cool air as we entered the darkened room, looking up to see what looked like a dusk painted sky on the ceiling, and theater chairs oddly tilted back as if we were about to settle into a space ship before liftoff. It was so cool.
As a creative thinker I’m drawn to things that allow me to escape into a place I’ve never been. The planetariums I’ve visited transported me to outer space, giving me a view I’m likely never to experience. It’s creative, it’s artistic, but it’s also all based in science. Who says science and art can’t be one and the same?
I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a space geek. I mean, it’s one of the many things I geek out about, although I’m no expert. I couldn’t tell you a what a quark is or how far a light-year is (though I do know it’s a measure of distance, not time). But I love staring up at the night sky, wishing that I’d had the drive as a kid to become involved in the aerospace world so I could someday travel to space. Aside from the off chance I happen upon a billion dollars and can hitch a ride on one of those private commercial space flights, it’s not likely to happen.
The next best thing to actually traveling into outer space for those of us who love to imagine ourselves floating in zero-G among the stars is the planetarium. Planetariums allow us to travel through space the way no telescope at an observatory ever could. And chances are, there is a really cool one a short road trip away.
Burke Baker Planetarium at the Houston Museum of Natural Science
Two words: NASA training. Yeah, that’s right, NASA astronauts train to identify starfields at this planetarium, that’s how good it is. Also, it’s in Houston. Yeah, that Houston. Come on, if that doesn’t scream interstellar space right in your face, nothing will. Opened in 1964, it’s an integral part of one of the most popular science museums in the U.S. and boasts multiple state-of-the-art digital star projectors that immerse you in space and life science exploration. And if stars aren’t your thing, you could watch Pink Floyd’s The Wall projected in 360* glory.
Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History
Neil Degrasse-Tyson is the director of this New York City based planetarium. If you don’t know who he is, why are you even reading this post? I kid…Degrasse-Tyson is world reknowned as the guy who, along with the Intrnational Astronomical Union, helped demote Pluto from planet to dwarf. Imagine the types of programs this guy has helped develop at Hayden? The planetarium boasts state of the art star projections, scientific programs, and in a separate theater underneath the dome, an immersive film depicting the Big Bang. I’m going to NYC in October. This may have to be a stop during that trip.
I picked the Adler Planetarium in Chicago mostly because it has an awesome location: the dome itself sits on Northerly Island that juts right out into Lake Michigan. But that’s not its only claim to fame. The Adler Planetarium was the first one built in the Western Hemisphere, and is the oldest in existence today. Taking a look inside affords a fantastic cosmological view of the universe.
Albert Einstein Planetarium at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum
When I was 12 years old, my family took a vacation to Washington, D.C. where we explored our nation’s capital. To this day, only a few things still stick in my memory: the mall around the Washington Monument; one of the offices I glimpsed as we took a VIP tour of the U.S. Treasury; and the main lobby of the National Air And Space Museum. Airplanes and jets hanging from the ceiling, suspended in a kind of weird frozen flight caught my fancy. Little did I know that there was a planetarium at the museum. Despite it’s historic name, the Albert Einstein Planetarium at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum has the latest digital projection systems and scientific programs.
Samuel Oschin Planetarium at Griffith Observatory
You’ve no doubt seen the iconic dome of the Griffith Observatory in countless films and television shows throughout the years. Nestled in a park in the heart of Los Angeles, the observatory is a prime filming location, but rarely do people realize it’s a real observatory. Fewer realize – myself included – that there is a world class planetarium at the observatory too. Spend the day scoping out the grounds, then hop inside the 300 seat theater to enjoy some of the world class scientific programs exploring space and other realms.
The Morrison Planetarium has one big claim to fame that many others don’t: with a 75 foot diameter dome tilted at 30*, It’s the largest dome planetarium in the U.S. If that’s not a good enough reason for you to make the trip to this San Francisco-based science museum, try some live NASA feeds, or a discussion with Academy scientists in the field.
Honorable Mention: Southworth Planetarium at the University of Southern Maine
This one is no more notable than the other planetariums, other than it’s close by to me. Housed at the University of Southern Maine (Part of the UMaine system), the planetarium is a popular attraction among grammar school groups, but it still offers some interesting programs for star gazers of all ages. With relatively new star projectors and comfier seats, the planetarium is a great, affordable part of a day trip to Portland, Maine.
Honorable Mention: The Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Boston Museum of Science
The only reason this planetarium didn’t make the wishlist is because…well, I’ve been there already. Twice. And I love it. One of the coolest things about this planetarium is its unbelievably powerful computer array that allows for a three dimensional journey through the universe that the tour guide can manipulate manually. The guide we had the last time I visited didn’t seem to have a very good presentation, but the 3D journey was enough to keep me happy.