Lost in space: Will a new planetarium ever be built?

Actual photos from telescopes and spacecraft are used in the ExploraDome's simulated space journeys.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Planetarium Society
Actual photos from telescopes and spacecraft are used in the ExploraDome’s simulated space journeys.

The “sky” darkened over the Twin Cities, and Sally Brummel wanted help spotting planets.

“Mars,” called out several kids who were watching her virtual sky, backs on the floor, inside the Edina Community Center.

Brummel guided them to Mars, then Saturn, Jupiter and far-flung constellations.

It was a lesson in local sky watching that generations of Minnesotans learned at the old Minneapolis Planetarium before it was torn down in 2002 to make way for the new downtown library.

Now Brummel and the Minnesota Planetarium Society take it to communities in an inflatable ExploraDome, where a customized fisheye lens fitted on a projector recreates the heavens. 

The dome gives a small taste of the first-class astronomical experience the Planetarium Society has worked for years to create in Minnesota.

Will the state get the full meal? The answer depends on crucial decisions to be made within the next few weeks.

Like a planet bombarded by comets, plans for the Minnesota Planetarium and Space Discovery Center have been slammed repeatedly by problems that had nothing to do with the project itself.

First, it was on a long list of projects former Gov. Jesse Ventura vetoed for state bonding in 2002. After years of intense lobbying by school kids and teachers, the state did grant authority in 2005 for $22 million in bonding.

The next blow came in the merger this year of the Minneapolis and Hennepin County library systems. Plans had called for the city to own the new planetarium and to build it atop the new central library in downtown Minneapolis.

Now, the county has taken over the library and become the reluctant owner of a project it didn’t start. Major decisions on how — and, whether — to proceed are expected to unfold in the next few weeks. This Tuesday, a task force advising the County Board is to come up with recommendations to be presented to the Board Aug. 15.

Subsidy needed
A key worry for the county comes from the fact that the planetarium will need some subsidy, as do most similar museums. The planetarium’s business plan projects that revenues from admissions, memberships and other sources will cover about 78 percent of the operating expenses, leaving an annual shortfall of $580,000 to $642,000. Planners are looking for savings here and there, but some shortfall is inevitable.

County Board members have informally called for the city to help with the operating subsidies. The city already has invested $1.8 million in preparing the downtown library’s elevators, heating systems and other building basics to accommodate the planetarium.

County Commissioner Mark Stenglein said Tuesday that it will be critical to find outside funding. He co-chairs the task force.

“The state, the city, or someone has to agree to the funding, or we won’t go ahead with it,” he said. “Our mission is not to run a planetarium … Building it is the cheapest part. Running it is the expensive part.”

Stenglein was pessimistic about the prospects: “Two months ago, I was giving the chances for the project — on a scale of one to 10 — an eight. Now I would give it a two or a three. The funding isn’t there.”

County commissioner Gail Dorfman was more optimistic. She is the other co-chair of the planetarium taskforce. Beyond looking to the city for help with operating expenses, the county “may well go to the Legislature,” she said, seeking support similar to what the state contributes to the Science Museum of Minnesota.

That is not to say Dorfman thinks it will be easy to assemble the funding.

“We don’t want to be surprised down the road because we know that once we say the planetarium can move forward, we are the public sponsor and owner,” she said. “We don’t want to be in a position where operating costs are higher and we either have to close the facility or ante up more money.”

To further complicate the financing, the county faces unexpected expenses from the library merger.

And the planetarium needs to come up with money to launch a major capital drive for construction and startup costs. Planners had expected all along to supplement the $22 million in state-backed bonds with at least another $20 million contributed by private donors. But donors have been reluctant to pledge support while government obstacles cast doubt on the project.

Looking for votes

On the plus side, Dorfman said there would be “a tremendous amount of synergy between the planetarium and the library as it relates to a family friendly venue in downtown Minneapolis.” Combined, the two facilities would add a “something-for-everyone” quality to a downtown that also will be enhanced by the new Twin’s baseball stadium, the new Guthrie Theater, and the recently improved MacPhail Center for Music, she said.  

“I’m hoping that we can cobble together the additional votes we need to move this forward,” Dorfman said.

City council member Scott Benson, who also sits on the planetarium task force, said Thursday that he is trying to put together an endowment for planetarium operations. A permanent fund, he said, would provide an annual subsidy and also free the operators from having to plead with politicians in the future in order to keep the planetarium’s doors open.

Students prepare to take in a recent appearance by the ExploraDome.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Planetarium Society
Students prepare to take in a recent appearance by the ExploraDome.

But Benson was not prepared to offer specifics on where such a sum would come from. He said the city is looking at “a variety of sources.” All he could say for now is: “We want to work with the county to make sure that this gets done and it gets done in Minneapolis.”

Even the planetarium’s location is up for debate. Amid concerns that construction would disrupt the library’s operations, County Board members have heard sketchy proposals for other sites — some downtown, some in the suburbs. One suggestion was to build the planetarium on a block just north of the downtown library, city-owned land which currently functions as a parking lot.

Benson said that site is not a feasible alternative. Beyond the prime value of the land, there also are transit obstacles, he said. Buses use the block as a hub, and the need to accommodate them would make costs of developing the block prohibitive.

Space journeys
Plans for the planetarium call for an interactive exhibit hall where students could work with real-time space images via remote telescopes and orbiting satellites. The rooftop would feature an outdoor observation deck equipped for day and nighttime sky watching. And an exposition hall would offer travelling exhibits such as images from the Hubble Space Telescope.

A centerpiece would be the Sky Theater, where up to 200 visitors at a time could sit under a 60-foot diameter dome for simulated space journeys and guided studies. 

For now, Brummel offers a scaled-down version of that travel in the 25-foot diameter ExploraDome, which can hold about 30 people at a time. Schools hire the dome for $1,000 a day. Corporations pay $2,000.

“We’re going to jump into a space ship … launch off Earth and fly into space,” Brummel told the group in Edina. She is an astronomy educator with a degree in physics.

One boy asked to visit Pluto, which recently lost its planetary status but remains part of our solar system as a dwarf planet.

They were off, stopping first to relish dazzling close-ups of the moon shot by a telescope with such clarity that the craters look like real indentations. “May day!” a boy reacted as they talked about space rocks crashing into the lunar surface.

Next stop was Jupiter where they marveled at images, captured by spacecraft, of a monster storm on the face of the gas giant. Before moving on, they counted the shadows cast by a few of the planet’s 63 moons.

Finally, they reached Pluto, a journey Brummel said would take a real spacecraft almost 10 years. Those images were only conceptual, but real versions should be available after 2015, when the robotic spacecraft New Horizons is scheduled to fly by Pluto.

Brummel turned the imaginary spacecraft back toward Earth, zooming into North America, the Upper Midwest, Minnesota, and eventually the building in Edina where the students were watching.

31,000 visitors

The Sky Theater also is intended to take audiences through Earth studies with sophisticated tools for in-depth exploration so that students could learn about everything from rainfall patterns on the planet’s surface to local conditions during a drought.

After nearly two years in operation, the ExploraDome has attracted 31,000 visitors, compared to about 70,000 a year at the old planetarium. Plans call for the dome to travel as an outreach program if the new planetarium is built.

Whatever the planetarium’s fate, education about space and astronomy is valued by families in the region, said Debbie Dodge, who drove her sons and their friends from Coon Rapids to catch the ExploraDome in Edina.

At a time when kids are absorbed with computer games and other less educational pastimes, she said, it’s important to “show them the other things that are out there, to give them the history and all of the knowledge they are going to need someday.”

Meanwhile, her son, Peyton Dodge, age 9, was delighted with the ExploraDome: “It was really good. I liked how you can zoom in on galaxies and stuff and see how stars can make pictures.”

Sharon Schmickle writes about foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Bonnie Hayskar on 08/05/2008 - 04:48 pm.

    This would seem like a no-brainer. A planetarium should be at the Science Museum of Minnesota, not a library. I always wondered how Minneapolis came to have a planetarium in its previous facility. Doesn’t seem like a match. Let’s get together and build a truly world-class sky gazer on the banks of the Mississippi in Saint Paul.

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