It was a bittersweet good-bye as 50 people gathered for “All Good Things,” the final presentations at the Bruner Hall of Science (BHS) planetarium earlier this month.
Dr. Jose Mena-Werth, planetarium director, gave a retrospective of the 40 years of the planetarium before the doors were closed to the public for the last time.
Preliminary plans are for the construction of a new planetarium on the northwest corner of the addition to BHS.
“We expect to open the doors to the new planetarium in 2009,” Dr. Mena-Werth said. The current planetarium is located in the basement of BHS. The new planetarium will be accessible on the ground floor and will take up two floors in the new structure.
“The presentation of the last show was sad, but at the same time, it was a nice time to reminisce,” he said.
Attendees entered the planetarium to music by the Beatles. As the retrospective began, each decade was introduced by popular music of the time, news highlights and views of the skies during each season of the year.
The show opened with the skies as they are seen in the spring. The featured song, “The Girl from Ipanema,” was a popular bossa nova piece from the ‘60s, which is when the planetarium was established.
It was during the early years of the planetarium that Dr. Glen Underhill, who was the first planetarium director, is thought to have begun the tradition of The Christmas Star show, which examines the skies as they would have been at the time of the birth of Jesus.
“When I came (in the ‘90s),” Dr. Mena-Werth said, “The Christmas Star show was the only thing I was told that I had to do. The show had become a tradition.
“In the ‘60s, the projector used an incandescent bulb, which meant that people had to wait for 10 minutes to get used to the dim light before a show could begin,” he said. About 12 years ago, a new arc lamp was purchased for the planetarium. That lamp was replaced by an improved arc lamp in the past eight years.
“Now we have a little arc lamp, and the stars are more realistic in size and brightness,” he said. “The constellations look better.
“People who have attended shows in the planetarium over the 40 years realized that the skies improved over that time,” he added.
The ‘70s were introduced to the Donna Summer tune, “Rosie Christmas.” The disco selection also celebrated the Christmas Star show. Among the highlights of the decade that Dr. Mena-Werth noted were the energy crisis, Watergate, Nixon resigning and the Bicentennial celebration.
“Through it all, the planetarium was a constant,” he said. Appropriately, the ‘80s were introduced with Paul Simon’s “St. Judy’s Comet.” The Iran-Contra scandal and resulting investigations were in the news. The UNK planetarium, the only planetarium west of Hastings, serves the western two-thirds of the state, which has made the facility a popular destination for groups of Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and for school field trips.
A presentation for a group of elementary school children still stands out in Dr. Mena-Werth’s memory. During his talk, one boy suddenly burst out laughing, commenting that he knew a word that rhymed with the name of one of the stars. Dr. Mena-Werth continued his presentation, and soon the boy again burst out laughing. However, as he began to comment, he was stopped mid-sentence. His teacher had quickly, but quietly, made her way across the pitch black room to cover his mouth with her hand just as he had begun to blurt out the “colorful” term.
“Lots of things happen when you’re in show business,” Dr. Mena-Werth said with a good-humored chuckle.
Dr. Mena-Werth transitioned into the ‘90s with Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca” and noted that it was in the early ‘90s that the campus went from being a state college to having full university status.
“We became UNK instead of Kearney State, a big change educationally,” he said. “I started in the fall of 1992. A lot of people were new to the campus that year.” And 1992 marked the change of planetarium directorship from Dr. Underhill to Dr. Mena-Werth.
Ella Fitzgerald’s “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” introduced the events of the present decade, which includes receiving a $600,000 NASA grant for the new planetarium.
“This semester has been busy with administering the grant and dealing with the purchase of a new projector,” he said.
“We are choosing between the Goto Chronos and the Zeiss Skymaster.” Representatives from both companies have given presentations on the campus.
“We could make either choice, and I think we’d be happy for the next 40 years. It will depend on the bids,” he concluded.