Smith Planetarium survives and thrives

Smith Planetarium survives and thrives

October 24th, 2012 by Mike O'Neal in Local Regional News

Last year, dark skies presaged devastating storms that destroyed the Pond Springs School building that housed the Walker County Schools Information and Technology Center as well as the Smith Planetarium.

"We had our grand opening last year and then one program before a devastating storm hit," said Jim Smith, former teacher and current school board member whose name the planetarium bears.

While the majority of the former elementary school sustained so much damage that it was torn down, the planetarium survived the storm unscathed and reopened, with a new and improved projector, to the public this Sept. 17.

This month, the planetarium will be open to the public at 2:30 p.m. on the first Sunday of each month and at 7:30 p.m. on the last Tuesday of each month. The next planetarium show is now set for next Tuesday, Oct. 30.

Kim McCroskey, who now heads the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Center for Distance Learning, was information and technology supervisor for Walker County Schools when the storm struck.

Rather than the April 27, 2011 tornado, she said it was "70 mph straight line winds on June 18" that destroyed the science and technology center.

Those mighty winds ripped the roof as though it was a tin of sardines, allowing rain to permeate the building. The result: everything inside suffered massive mold and water damage.

"I arrived and the alarm was going off," McCroskey recalled. "I thought maybe a tree had fallen on a line. Everything seemed normal. From Pond Springs Road it looked OK, but when I saw the back of the building it was 'Wow!' the roof had been blown off."

Moisture always poses problems with electronics, but the storm did more than let water in. It created conditions that allowed the hot, humid Georgia summer to turn the classrooms and offices into petri dishes.

"The walls were black," McCroskey said.

But all was not lost. Staff members fortified the doors to what has once been the school's cafeteria, where roof and windows were still intact, and converted it into a storage room for what could and would be saved. Even then, things were not ready to return to normal.

"It took about a month for everything to dry out," McCroskey said.

While the majority of the building was razed, the cafeteria and planetarium were saved. And improved.

A new Konica Minolta MediaGlobe II projector, the same as is used at the Tellus Planetarium in Cartersville, was installed, making simulated travel among the stars even more compelling.

But even better, instead of just a planetarium, the facility will now be a more diverse science center, McCroskey said.

"It gives me chills to think about being able to bring science alive," she said when repairs were nearly complete. "Not only that, but it will become a living part of the community. It can help make education come alive for students if they are 4 or 40."

Making science interesting to the masses is something Smith feels is a prime reason for reopening the center.

Already, the site is used by NASA scientists to study the heavens. Two of Smith's former Rossville High School students, Dr. Bill Cooke and Dr. Rob Suggs, have used the planetarium site to aid projects they conduct from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The two scientists said NASA programs having benefited from the planetarium's earlier incarnation range, from Voyager missions to Jupiter and Saturn, to GPS satellites, the International Space Station and the Constellation Program.

Smith, who served as the planetarium's first director when it was established in 1967 at what is now Rock Spring Elementary School, has high hopes for the new center and its role in the everyday life of those living in Walker County.

The public has always enjoyed planetarium shows, he said, and improvements will allow using the domed ceiling to show both projected "shows" but also live images from telescopes. Those telescopes could be ones sitting outside aimed at the sky above Lookout Mountain or the planetarium could be linked to observatories anywhere in the world - or in space.

For the Smith Planetarium, the sky of its star-spotted dome is always clear, bright and knows no limits.