Vandalism doesn’t eclipse the work of Walker County’s planetarium

Staff Photo by Andrew Wilkins /  John Hart, director of the James A. Smith Planetarium, holds a piece of equipment from the first nuclear power plant hosted at the facility Tuesday in Chickamauga, Ga.
Staff Photo by Andrew Wilkins / John Hart, director of the James A. Smith Planetarium, holds a piece of equipment from the first nuclear power plant hosted at the facility Tuesday in Chickamauga, Ga.

Vandalism at Walker County's James A. Smith Planetarium hasn't slowed down the staff's work to educate the community about astronomy and technology.

John Hart, the planetarium's director, said he and the Walker County Sheriff's Office think three youths on bicycles seen in the area could be responsible for the damage that occurred June 1. He said thousands of dollars of damage was done.

"Really, it's just the principle of the matter," Hart said about the damage as he sat beneath the 40-foot-tall dome that would soon display a depiction of the night sky. "This facility belongs to the citizens of Walker County. It's administrated by the school system on behalf of the citizens. If you consider how rare planetariums are, it's just ignorance."

A door to the planetarium was smashed, an antique sundial was destroyed, there was damage to the facility's Shirley Smith Nature Walk, and the building's siding was damaged, probably by thrown rocks, Hart said. The maintenance department of Walker County Schools was able to fix most of the damage, and Hart said he fixed the door himself the day after the incident.

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An email to the Walker County Sheriff's Office and county spokesperson asking about the incident wasn't returned before deadline.

Along with the planetarium, the facility has a collection of minerals and Native American artifacts as well as historic technology including telescopes and items from early in the nation's space and nuclear programs.

But the star of the show is the planetarium theater itself, a 40-foot-tall aluminum dome where a rendering of the night sky can be projected.

Because the laws of planetary motion are so well understood, Hart said the planetarium can replicate the night sky seen from any point on Earth's surface from any time in the past 5,000 years or 5,000 years into the future.

 

With just a few keystrokes, he was able to replicate 2017's partial eclipse above Walker County and the full eclipse as seen from Tennessee. The planetarium has a whole program about a planetary event thought to be the star from the story of the birth of Christ, and Hart said the planetarium also replicates the sky on the day people were born for birthday parties.

The planetarium hosted its first light show in late May, featuring music from the British rock band Pink Floyd.

During the school year, Hart said, the planetarium usually hosts public shows on the first Sunday and the last Tuesday of each month, as well as about 100 field trips annually. Special programs are hosted throughout the year for eclipses and other celestial phenomena, he said.

Hart said some people have lived their whole life in Walker County and don't even know the planetarium exists. Only 350 planetariums exist in the country, he said.

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During the space race in the late 1950s, Hart said planetariums were being built all over the country.

"The reason they wanted so many planetariums is they knew to compete with the Soviets, we needed more scientists and engineers," Hart said. "What better way to inspire the future generation of scientists and engineers than with a planetarium."

Since the space race ended when the United States put a man on the moon, the public's interest in the stars has waned and many planetariums have closed, he said.

Walker County parent Patricia Conley said the planetarium adds a lot to the "outside the box" education of the community's youth. In a phone call, she said Hart had the education and experience to work for the nation's space program, so the community should be thankful for his work.

Hart's dedication to the community and passion for education is rare these days, she said.

"It's a great organization, the planetarium itself, to have that persona in our neighborhood that gives of his time to these kids in this neighborhood," Conley said. "We want to keep that planetarium intact."

Conley expressed regret for the vandalism and hopes the perpetrators are caught to turn them away from destructive behavior.

"If we don't nip that in the bud now, there's no telling what it will be when they get older," she said.

The planetarium has been in operation at the current location since 2012, Hart said, and was originally founded in Rock Springs in 1967.

To build the planetarium's current facility, $750,000 was raised, Hart said, and it was built with volunteer labor from local contractors and seats sourced for free from a planetarium in Nashville. The 40-foot aluminum dome was cobbled together, he said, from two different sources.

Jim and Shirley Smith, the planetarium's founders, are in their 80s, and Hart said someone needs to keep the facility's legacy going. Hart has been with the planetarium since 2015, he said.

Hart said he began looking to the stars when he was in the military and deployed in remote places with a night sky unmarred by lighting. Then he bought a portable telescope and a book that taught him about the stars.

During his self-study while deployed, he decided to get a master's degree in planetary science when he returned home.

The first thing he learned was the first magnitude stars, the 20 or so brightest in the night sky.

"They're way brighter than other stars," Hart said. "They serve as waypoints, like celestial lighthouses. Once you have them memorized, you can use them as reference points."

Both Navy ship captains and astronauts are still trained to navigate by the stars, Hart said, a tradition learned by mariners for centuries — because when modern gadgets fail, he said, you can still rely on ancient celestial navigation techniques.

Contact Andrew Wilkins at awilkins@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

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