With the voice of actor Tom Hanks as your guide, you are whisked away on a spectacular tour of the cosmos. First a mysterious, Death Star-like sphere rises up from the floor before you. Vivid computer-generated star fields and galaxies glide before you at many times the speed of light. Finally, your seat rumbling beneath you, you experience a flume ride through a Disney-esque black hole.
Welcome to the 21st-century incarnation of New York’s Hayden Planetarium. Housed in the Rose Center for Earth and Space, a recently opened wing of the American Museum of Natural History, it is to a 20th-century planetarium as George Lucas is to Galileo. And while the planetarium’s combination of advanced projection systems is now unique, it should soon be replicated in other revamped or new space theaters around the world.
The traditional domed planetarium-using optical projection and gears embodying Copernican astral mechanics-was first demonstrated in 1923 by Zeiss, the German optics company. The original Hayden Planetarium, part of the first wave of sky theaters in the U.S., opened on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1935. Over the years, generations of children broadened their horizons beneath its virtual planets and stars-heavenly bodies usually unseen in the city. (Among those turned on to the stars here was Bronx-born astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson, now the Hayden’s director.) About 100 other major planetariums and more than 1,000 smaller ones have cropped up since, many built at schools and colleges with funding generated by the Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s.
In recent years, though, planetariums have had to compete for the public’s attention with theme park rides, Hollywood special effects and high-resolution IMAX movies. The most recent trend in planetarium buildings has been an odd architectural compromise: a tilted dome with steeply banked audience seating to accommodate both IMAX and star shows. When the Hayden’s threadbare facilities were in need of a major refurbishing, the trustees of the Natural History Museum opted for a new architectural metaphor: One of the universe’s own spheres, 2 million kilograms of it, housed inside the showcase-like, $210 million Rose Center. At the heart of the sphere is Hayden II’s 429-seat Space Theater. It is equipped with the latest Zeiss projector-the Universarium Model IX-which includes a more detailed portrayal of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, as well as additional deep-sky objects. In place of the old barbellshaped-projector, this one’s main module is a black globe using fiber optics to produce some star images finer than the unaided eye’s ability to resolve them.