Starry eyes at opening of Bechtel National Planetarium at CBC

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldDecember 5, 2012 

Tony Cerda had never been in a planetarium before Tuesday night.

The sophomore, who is studying nursing at Columbia Basin College, was on hand Tuesday night as a student representative at the private opening of the new Bechtel National Planetarium on the college's Pasco campus. He had high expectations for when he'd finally get to go inside and watch stars move past him.

"It's a whole other media outlet," he said. "It'll be awe-inspiring."

Awe wasn't in short supply as college officials, donors and other supporters -- including astronauts Charlie Duke, Story Musgrave and John Phillips -- got a sneak peek of the $1.3 million facility.

Speakers, from CBC President Richard Cummins to Frank Russo, project director for Bechtel National at the Hanford site, noted the importance of the facility, not only to CBC and its students, but to students who are only beginning to explore the wonders of the universe.

"When you have your head in the stars, you're making progress," Russo said.

CBC and donors broke ground on the project in mid-June. It mostly involved renovating Building D, a building on the western edge of the Pasco campus, into the new structure.

After the addition of the planetarium theater, the building has a total of 2,700 square feet and three classrooms. College officials said renovating rather than building a new structure reduced costs for the project.

But substantial dollars still were needed to make the planetarium a reality. Bechtel National provided $100,000 toward the project, and restricted state capital money helped pay for some of the work. The Community Enrichment Foundation, which is supported by HAPO Community Credit Union and Windermere Realty, provided another $100,000 and the CBC Foundation contributed about $250,000.

"We wanted to start doing things that make a difference," said Dave Schultz of Community Enrichment Foundation.

Designed to project images of the night sky and other images in an all-surrounding atmosphere, the building is touted as one of the best of its kind by the college and the project's supporters.

Its projection system is a Spitz XD high-definition projection system, one of the finest in the industry, according to college officials. The 36-foot diameter dome is one of the largest in the state, and combined with seating for 100 makes it the largest planetarium in Washington based on a ratio of seating-to-screen space.

"This is a little facility that feels big," said Mike Durst, director of CBC's Moore Observatory.

And it does feel big. Sitting in one of the seats and staring up at the dome during the showing of the film Black Holes, a viewer gets a sense of physically floating above the Milky Way galaxy, or the black hole scientists have deduced exists at its center.

Cummins spoke of the project as a long-term goal that was temporarily sidetracked by the recession that struck the country in 2008. He said that astronomy is a "gateway science" to grab the attention of youth.

"The visual nature of astronomy is what makes it so powerful for young people," he said.

The facility is expected to be a boon to CBC's astronomy program, especially once it is connected with the Moore Observatory and the Pacific Northwest Regional Observatory in the Horse Heaven Hills.

But Cummins and others made it clear that the facility is there to serve all students, not just those at the college. The planetarium will be open from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday, strictly to grant free admission to students in grades K-12.

And the planetarium isn't just about space either. Karl Olson, a CBC sophomore who works at the observatory, said any number of productions can be shown in the planetarium, exploring anything from coral reefs to the human body.

"I don't think people understand the limitless capabilities of this," Olson said.

Donors lauded Cummins' and Durst's commitment to the project and said the planetarium will go far in benefiting the community and science education for years to come. Russo spoke of how a similar visit to a planetarium during his childhood in New York City set him on the path to his career in science.

"I sat in a chair like this and it changed my life," he said, standing in the darkened theater, the dome projecting a twilight desert scene. "I went from not caring (about my education) to caring."

-- Ty Beaver: 582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com

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