The Southern Environmental Center Plans to Turn the Planetarium into a "GeoDome," Focusing on Alabama's Geography
On Snapchat a few weeks ago, I saw that one of my friends was inside the Robert R. Meyer Planetarium. This surprised me—I thought the building was no longer in use and not even unlocked. In my three years at BSC, I had never seen anyone—students, faculty, or even campus security—enter or exit the building. I immediately texted my friend and asked how she got inside.
“The door is wide open!” my friend replied. "And most of the equipment still works!"
Not wasting any time, I called two other friends, and we sprinted from our separate rooms in Lakeview, Bruno, and Maggie to meet outside the darkened building. Sure enough, the door at the bottom of the winding stairs, closest to the parking lot, was wide open. The inside of the planetarium was dark and void of light, so we turned on our phone flashlights and tiptoed through the empty building. Roaches scuttled at our feet, fleeing from the light of our phones. Numerous puddles of water glistened on the floor, forcing us to leap over them instead of striding across the dirty tiles.
Eventually, we found our way into the main part of the planetarium. The room was wide and circular with a large white dome above that served as the projection screen. Near the back wall, a projector stood alone on the ground. I fiddled with it for several minutes before I finally found the power button. The machine emitted a quiet hum, and a long screen appeared on the bottom of the dome. The projector was over 50 years old and had a reel of space images attached to the top. My friends and I cycled through various pictures of stars and galaxies.
A few days later, I learned through some friends who had also attempted to get into the planetarium that the door had been closed and that entry was no longer possible. Rumors circulated among students that the building was going to be demolished. In actuality, the building will soon be retooled as a GeoDome—a facility as futuristic as the planetarium undoubtedly was 50 years ago.
“It will be one of the first, if not the first, of its kind in Alabama," says Roald Hazelhoff, director of the Southern Environmental Center (SEC) at Birmingham-Southern. Hazelhoff, who has been at BSC for 25 years, met with me to discuss the plans for the planetarium, as well as its storied history.
Built in 1964 and costing a total of $98,669, the Meyer Planetarium was the first of its kind in Alabama. It was constructed to tie in with the Apollo program and meet the growing public interest in space travel. In its time, the planetarium had state-of-the-art technology with a “Spitz” projector that resembled a giant robot and a stereophonic sound system that played relaxing music during star shows. The planetarium held astronomy classes, but also served as a field trip destination for local elementary, middle, and high school students.
Unfortunately, the aging equipment was not replaced, and the faculty and staff who once administered the planetarium all retired. Also, in 2010, Birmingham Southern went through a fiscal crisis which cut funding dramatically, and the planetarium was one of the first items on the chopping block.
“The time has come,” Hazelhoff says, “to turn the telescope inward.”
The building will keep its domed ceiling and original theatre chairs, which can hold 45 to 50 people. The GeoDome will focus on Alabama geography with a 20-foot long floating screen that takes viewers from BSC to Turkey Creek to Little River Canyon and other Alabama landmarks.
"It is impossible to have environmental stewardship without a sense of your backyard,” Hazelhoff says. “We want to lead because that's what colleges should do.”
The GeoDome will have a part-time supervisor that will not only run grade-school tours, but will be available to work with BSC students who wish to use the GeoDome. The second phase of the renovation will include a virtual classroom on the bottom floor. The screen will be in 4k projection technology, which is 30-40 times clearer than HD.
“This classroom will have Oculus Rift, the whole nine yards," Hazelhoff says, referencing one of the popular virtual reality systems used by filmmakers, designers, and other creative tech professionals. He hopes that the virtual classroom will tie in with the media and films studies program and science departments. With the technology, students will be able to walk around a 3D heart or show their own student-produced films.
When I asked about a timeline, Hazelhoff told me that the main theatre is scheduled to open this upcoming February, while the entire campaign, which costs approximately $1 million, will be completed at the end of 2018. Hopefully, come next school year, students will no longer have to sneak into the planetarium and will be able to reap the benefits of BSC's new GeoDome.