WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) — The latest new attraction in Waterloo is an out-of-this-world experience.
The 65-year-old planetarium at the Grout Museum District, 503 South St., has undergone a $200,000 renovation. With the simple touch of an iPad, a new state-of-the-art projection system will transport audiences to Jupiter, Saturn, Mars or any planet, galaxy or star, into the depths of ancient Mayan jungle, the night sky at Christmas — possibilities are endless — and all in astonishing detail.
It is an immersive experience that is meant to educate, engage and entertain visitors.
“We can land on any planet and explore. We can go forward and backwards in time. We can go into space in real-time. We can put together our own shows or choose from a selection of available programming,” Alan Sweeney, director of facilities and exhibits, told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.
Renamed the Norris Corson Family Planetarium, the museum’s star chamber is one of only three planetariums in Iowa that offers public programming. The planetarium is open for members only through Dec. 23. Beginning Dec. 27, it will open to public showings.
Installed in 1956, the planetarium underwent some renovation in 1976 with the installation of a new star projector. “After nearly 50 years, none of the buttons or switches on the star ball worked anymore. When we closed because of COVID, that gave us the perfect time to start the renovation project,” said Sweeney. He did the demolition work himself.
The original star projector is now in a display case just outside the planetarium door.
The planetarium now features a 4K laser projection system installed by Bowen Technovations from Indianapolis, a Digitalis planetarium control system, LED cover light and 5.1 surround sound audio. A silver-tinted specialized coating was painted on the original dome, cove lighting installed for more lighting special effects and 30 theater-style reclined seats installed. There is a new electrical system and carpeting, as well.
Sweeney described his first experience with the planetarium’s new capability as “jaw-dropping. It’s so new that we’re still trying to figure out all that we can do. It’s all computerized and integrated. Now we can just come in, push a button, swipe the iPad and get a show going. It gives us so much flexibility.”
At a recent test showing for 30 third-grade students, “the whole room erupted in cheers and applause,” he said.
Sweeney credits Barbara Corson as the driving force behind the renovation. Corson has been fascinated by astronomy since childhood and a frequent traveler. She is an avid museum-goer. “We have a world-class museum in the Grout, and I’ve always been thankful that the Grout had a planetarium, but after so many years, the equipment was no longer operational,” Corson said.
She took action and contacted Grout Museum Director Billie Bailey to organize a planetarium committee that would determine a plan and raise funds. “The end result is fantastic,” she said.
A new effort, “Opening New Doors,” will begin in January to raise funds to improve accessibility and function for the museum and planetarium.
Other planetarium contributors include Black Hawk County Gaming Association, Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust, Cathy Livingston Fund (Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa), The Leighty Fund, Sandra Rada-Aleff, Sally Darragh, Kathy Breckunitch, Frederick W. Mast Family Fund and Greg and Lynette Harter.
Admission to the planetarium is $6 for adults and $3 for children. Museum members are free. Members can view shows at 3 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m. and 1:30 and 3 p.m. Saturdays through Dec. 23. From Dec. 27-31 the public can view shows at 11 a.m. and 1:30 and 3 p.m. After Dec. 31, weekday shows are at 3 p.m. and at 11 a.m., 1:30 and 3 p.m. Saturdays.