You know, nothing beats a good, dark planetarium for a grand spectacle. I have fond memories of the Bert Baker Planetarium in Houston, as well as the smaller planetarium at Sam Houston State University, both of which I visited several times way back when I was in high school. For several years I’ve been aware of the presence of a planetarium at the Science Place in Fair Park, but for one reason or another I’ve never been able to visit — mostly, I guess, because there are so many things to do in Fair Park. I’ve already written (at length) about the attractions of Fair Park in general, the State Fair, Leonhardt Lagoon, and the Fair Park Aquarium, but until recently, the Science Place Planetarium was one of the many Fair Park attractions I had yet to visit. It was always on my dance card, though, and last week I had the opportunity to attend the show for the first time.
That’s one of the things I like most about doing this blog — it stirs me to go out and have fun doing things I should have done long since. That’s not to say I haven’t checked out the planetarium before — I’ve been inside a few times, briefly, to chat with the people who work there and to glance at the displays, but I never had a chance to see the show. Well, much to my delight, I can no longer say that. I had a wonderful time, and I plan to go again soon to see another.But I’ll get to that.
First, allow me to introduce you properly. The Science Place Planetarium is located in the Science Place Building 2. If you don’t know anything about the Science Place, it’s a kind of hands-on museum with displays for kids that they can actually touch and, in some cases, manipulate. I haven’t done a real entry on the Science Place yet, but I will eventually. Officially, the Science Place merged with the Dallas Museum of Natural History in 2006 to form the Dallas Museum of Nature and Science, but most of us still think of it as a separate entity, and in fact much of the signage still calls it The Science Place. The main portion of the Science Place is located in the middle of the Park, contiguous to the old Museum of Natural History, but the planetarium has its own building on the south end of the park.
For some reason, there’s also an oil-well pumperjack in front of the planetarium. I have no idea if it’s active — it certainly wasn’t on when we were there — but I wouldn’t be surprised. There’s oil under most of Texas; in fact, there used to be an active pumperjack, much like this one, in front of the Geology Building at Texas A&M when I was there.
The planetarium itself isn’t far from the Aquarium, and it shares space with our historic classical radio station, WFF, and a series of Project Head Start classrooms. That’s one of the joys of the planetarium. As part of the Science Place, its chief mission is to educate kids. That being the case, it’s got lots of simple- to-understand but interesting exhibits scattered around the building, including one display where you can check your weight and age on all the major planets, using special calculators affixed to the wall. Notice that Pluto’s conspicuously absent; I wonder if it was there before the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto to a dwarf planet status?
They’ve also got a variety of other cool displays, including a practice spacesuit from NASA (which never made it into space) and the only meteorite known to have fallen in Dallas County. It was recovered from one James Fite’s farm in Duncanville in 1936.
If the displays look a little scruffy to your eyes, it’s because they are. It’s not because the planetarium is down-at-the-heels or anything; it’s because mobs of kids are always handling and playing with the displays. That’s what they’re there for, after all. The really important stuff, like the spacesuit, is behind glass; but most of the displays, including the meteorite, are well-polished by thousands of little hands. If you’re an adult who likes stuff like this, you have to remember that The Science Place was built for kids to use and learn in! Even the corridor leading to the planetarium dome itself is full of toys and lined with classrooms, at least one of which was being used while we were visiting. The planetarium room itself was surprisingly small, with seats for maybe 20 people at a time. (They were very comfortable seats, by the way). Not surprisingly, I can’t show you pictures of the darkened planetarium (people would not have approved of the flash), but it’s about what you would expect — a comfortable, cool space with a white domed ceiling, with seats tilted back toward that ceiling. We got to enjoy a double-feature lasting about 40 minutes, representing just two of the half dozen shows they offer (which is why I plan to return soon). The first show was “Wonders of the Universe,” and takes you from the creation of the universe up to today (a heroic feat to accomplish in just 20 minutes). The second was “Secrets of the Sun,” which was also fascinating and very well done. I have only two criticisms about the planetarium shows: 1) The shows could have been brighter; even the whites were a little dim; and 2) The seats were so comfortable I almost fell asleep between shows. But the shows themselves were excellent, and the planetarium was very dark, so that you got the full impact of both.
The Science Place Planetarium at Fair Park is highly recommended for any visitor to Dallas, and it’s cheap, too: it costs $4 for adults to get in and $3 for kids. For more information, check out their website at http://www.natureandscience.org/planetarium/programs.asp.