Writer: DANNY MOGLE / Photographer: SARAH A. MILLER
In the darkened theater at Tyler Junior College’s science center, a group of kids are mesmerized as they stare at the 40-foot dome above them. As an image of a the moon fills the screen, a narrator shares that for centuries man has been fascinated by the ball of light in our night sky and once only dreamed of ways to get there.
Suddenly a silly-looking animated fox intent on getting to the moon hops into a cannon and is fired into the sky on a voyage that falls far short of its goal.
The children howl in laughter.
Later, the program shows the famous footage from July 21, 1969, of astronaut Neil Armstrong becoming the first man on the moon and proudly proclaiming, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The narrator speaks of man’s continued longing to explore the vast universe and teases, “Who knows what lies ahead?”
The kids have just been entertained, educated and inspired. Without even realizing it, they’ve discovered that science is fun.
The center opened with much fanfare in 1963 at Tyler Junior College as Hudnall Planetarium, named after benefactor Jimmy Hudnall. Children and adults could see twinkling stars projected onto the domed roof and watch as distant celestial bodies moved across the night sky from dusk to dawn.
At the time, space exploration was all the rage. The United States was trying to catch up to the Russians in the space race to be first to put a man on the moon and “The Voyage to the End of the Universe,” soon would be packing people into movie houses.
For those earliest visitors, the planetarium must have seemed like science fiction come to life.
After an extensive expansion and renovation, the center reopened in 2011 with a projection system that gives visitors an immersive, full-dome video experience similar to IMAX.
The bottom floor of the center — technically the Center for Earth and Space Science Education — is now a mini-museum that displays science-related exhibitions.
Currently on view is “Oceans: Acid vs. Life.” At a series of stations, children view videos that show how acid in oceans is affecting fish and harming coral.
PLACE OF LEARNING
After the show in the center’s theater, Brian Kremer, the coordinator of activities, takes the elementary-age children to a classroom near the exhibit space.
“Have any of you seen anything like this?” asks Kremer as he holds a star wheel chart. “This shows what’s visible in our sky any time of the year.”
By aligning the date and time, the wheel shows the positions of stars in the sky on any given night.
“You can see some of the constellations we were talking about in the planetarium,” Kremer says.
He challenges the elementary-age children to name a constellation that will be visible at 11 p.m. on Oct. 31. After positioning the wheel settings, the children’s hands shoot up, one after another. They are anxious to share their new knowledge.
Kim Lessner was named director of the science center two years ago and now as head of the college’s marketing continues to oversee its operation.
She remembers the first time she toured the center. “I had no idea it even existed. I couldn’t believe there was a domed theater in Tyler, Texas. I thought, ‘This is a shame that more people don’t know about it. This is a beautiful facility. It is a jewel for TJC, Tyler and East Texas.’”
She began to more aggressively promote the center’s domed shows, exhibits, star-gazing parties and special events. She wanted to attract more families looking for unique experiences.
“You come in as a family and there is awe all around,” she says. “The parents love it; the kids love it. I want them to leave saying, “oh my gosh, this is inspiring.’”
She began bringing more live entertainment to the center, including Casey Carle, the bubble man.
During a show filled with humor, Carle, a former Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus clown, makes giant floating spheres, soap-film serpents and bubbles that burst into flames while slipping in lessons about the science of bubble formation.
“People love him,” Lessner says. “He is so engaging with the audience and he ends (the show) by putting a child in a bubble. That’s what we want, something that nobody else is doing that is entertaining and educational all at once.”
Now Carle’s “Bubblemania” show quickly sells out.
“I am not a science person,” Lessner says. “But I have to admit, this stuff is cool.”