With Mobile’s recent attempts to lure new industry, museums count more than ever. Yet there’s a weak spot in our magnificent array of cultural and educational facilities that would put us over the moon, in more ways than one.
Mobile needs something that sets sights higher than the sky. Mobile should have a planetarium.
As a Birmingham kid, I didn’t have to head out of town to see the heavens’ glory. All I had to do was go up the hill to Meyer Planetarium at Birmingham-Southern College where the planets, stars and galaxies rolled by in astounding fashion. Combined with a space race that was at its apex, it set the imaginations of my peers ablaze with dreams of interplanetary and interstellar discovery.
Fast forward to my time in an astronomy class at the University of South Alabama. Our professor, Dr. Neal Rowell, often lamented the lack of opportunity for fieldwork in the Mobile area by explaining how the combination of light pollution, inclement weather and humidity made for poor stargazing.
The last of those is the worst culprit. It makes our daily summertime skies hazy as opposed to the near-cobalt canopy in higher and drier locales. It also scatters light at night, spreading out light pollution or moonlight and obscuring most everything else.
That means Mobile kids never get a chance to drink in the overwhelming nightly firmament. In town especially, they’re lucky to spy more than 20 bodies overhead, much less see the swath of the Milky Way.
That’s why my wife was nearly stupified by the sky when we stopped in the Mojave Desert one October night to sit on the car’s hood and eat dinner. It’s also one of a few reasons why the arrival of Halley’s Comet in the midst of that long-ago astronomy class elicited no good viewings.
So unless they venture far beyond town on one of Mobile’s rare cold and dry winter nights, youngsters are likely to see more celestial bodies in a bowl of Lucky Charms than they will in the backyard. The loss is noticed.
“I tell you who would eat up a planetarium would be kids, high school, middle school, elementary. Any planetarium is a welcome addition to any decent city, right up there with a history museum and public library,” USA physics professor Dr. Albert Gapud said. He teaches astronomy at the west Mobile campus.
Popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was inspired toward his life’s course by a visit to New York City’s Hayden Planetarium as a 9-year-old. It showed him wonders impossible to glimpse in his Bronx neighborhood.
“Most of the labs and the lectures I have, it’s just pictures, but we can’t show them for real. You want to show them for real but a planetarium would be the next best thing to give them a look at what we’re missing,” Gapud said.
South Alabama Professor Emeritus Dr. Kent Clark — “I call him ‘Man-super,’” Gapud quipped — echoed his younger colleague’s perspectives. He also nodded toward economic realities.
“A planetarium is just an educational tool. You would have to have shows to make it a going concern but it’s great for kids because you can do a lot of things with a planetarium you can’t do at an observatory,” Clark said.
Gapud noted the Gulf Coast Exploreum as a natural spot for such a facility. They have particular limitations, though.
“If we had more room maybe, but you know we’re so landlocked,” Gulf Coast Exploreum Director Jan McKay said. She pointed to the real estate squeeze on their block and how the facility is tightly nestled up to the History Museum of Mobile.
She said their IMAX theater wouldn’t allow conversion due to its construction. They could show films on astronomical subjects but that might be about it.
“I absolutely adore planetariums. I worked at a natural history museum and helped to build a planetarium and I’m actually frustrated with the lack of astronomy education going on in the region. I’d love to see a really cool planetarium somewhere,” McKay said.
In McKay’s 14 years at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, she worked with both a planetarium and an observatory. She called it key to the education they provided.
The biggest hurdle in such a venture would be financial. McKay said the necessary equipment alone in Cleveland cost $2 million.
Then there’s physical construction. According to several online sites and discussions, a 30-foot dome with a clear ceiling height of 25 feet or so usually holds close to 100 attendees. The only way they could have that at the Exploreum would be to sacrifice their oft-used courtyard.
With the growing private-sector involvement in space exploration, it might seem worthwhile to infect as many kids with galactic-level dreams as possible. If only there were an enthusiastic new industry in town with an identity in flight or aerospace, perhaps they could help out in some way.
Though they’re sorely unrecognized, we already have a couple of astronauts and a rocket scientist from Mobile. How many more could we boast if our children were infused with the wonder of the universe they don’t normally get to glimpse?