Smile Politely

Dawn of the Space Age

The last time I went to Staerkal Planetarium, almost ten years ago, I was a student at Parkland College. I saw The Who light show, a required review for my astronomy class. I was not impressed. It’s probably because I was a college student, and I knew everything, and I hated everything good. Now that I’ve gotten over that phase and know so much less than I did then, I was ready to see something new, something educational. So off to Staerkal Planetarium I went, and I was excited.

Unfortunately, I had to leave because I was sick. I had a terrible coughing fit and decided not to go inside. Dawn of the Space Age shows at 8:00 p.m. on most Fridays and Saturdays, so I figured I could use my ticket for the next night. Staerkal Planetarium reuses their tickets, which is undeniably cool. Patrons pay at the counter ($5 for adults, $4 for students; $7 and $6 for two consecutive shows) and give their tickets to the person at the showroom door. Then the tickets loop back to the box office. I took my receipt, my ticket, and a detailed note from the cashier to the next night’s employee, and I went home to rest.

When I got to the planetarium the next night, there was a substantial line. I was waiting long enough to take in a middle-aged woman, behind the counter, with a terrible attitude. No one was told to enjoy the show, parents were barked and grunted at, large parties were treated like a major inconvenience, and high school students were told they were not the “right kind of student” and they’d have to pay adult prices. I feared I would not get into the show with my previous night’s ticket. (It never occurred to me to just walk into the showroom with my dateless ticket.) I painted on my smile and stepped up to the counter. I briefly explained my situation and handed over my note. She said the note was not addressed to her but that she guessed it was okay for me to go in anyway; then she waved vaguely at the door.

I was in! It wasn’t pretty, but then no journey worth taking is.

There were roughly twenty people at the show, which surprised me. Half a dozen were kids under twelve, and a few high school and college students were in attendance. The rest were parents and appreciators of astronomy, or “Friends of the Stearkal Planetarium.”

The show opened with Dave, who is an instructor at Parkland College and whose class I’ve taken and enjoyed. Also, he really knows his stuff. Dave turned on the 25-year-old star machine and showed us some current astronomical events. (There’s a comet coming soon, by the way; look for it in the west.) We got to see the difference between dark and really dark skies, the kind that reveal millions of impossibly beautiful objects in the heavens. I was reminded of how much I love stargazing and how seldom it is that I indulge.

The featured attraction that night, Dawn of the Space Age, covers the launch of Earth’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, and sails through the space race between the United States and Russia. The mounting tension and admiration between nations is palpable in these computer generated images, and the show puts the audience near, around, and in American and Soviet spacecraft.

The portion devoted Sputnik 2, which was occupied for only a few hours by the unfortunate canine cosmonaut Laika, got squeals of delight and groans of sympathy from the younger audience members. I thought with a wry grimace, “If you’re going to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.” I also wondered why I was seeing a dog instead of a monkey. Go figure.

I was pained and delighted to see men make narrow escapes back into safety, their suits too big for hatch openings because of expansion in the vacuum of space. I gripped my armrest as manned aircraft spun out of — and then back into — control. Malfunctioning thrusters, dwindling fuel readings, and rocky terrain kept me not just awake, but riveted despite a cloud of cold medicine.

I learned a lot from this experience, and I remembered some things as well. I remembered the sky and its many treasures, known and unknown. I remembered how we got where we are, as a scientific community. We’re curious, yes, but we like a good competition. We like saying, “Screw you” to gravity and going places we’ve only dreamed of. I was reminded why we travel through outer space at all: It’s impossible.

And doing something impossible feels pretty great.

Dawn of the Space Age continues at Parkland College’s Staerkal Planetarium on March 8, 9, 15, 16, 29, and 30. For more information, please check their calendar.

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