Adler Planetarium Chicago Attractions

When Max Adler founded the Adler Planetarium in the spring of 1930, he did it with a vision in mind: to bring “a clearer understanding of man’s place in the universe to the citizens of Chicago.” The genius of “America’s First Planetarium” is the strategy it uses to fulfill this goal: harmonious contrasts. The planetarium’s many aspects educate the public on past, present and future space exploration by showcasing antique astronomical tools in one area while live transmissions from the space station play in another. It features exhibits tailored to intrigue children, ones that are meant for adults and many that appeal to both. The actual design of the building is a striking juxtaposition of Art Deco and ultra-modern architecture that symbolizes a connection between the Planetarium’s rich history and its bold future, its twelve sides a suggestion of the many angles to be found within. The sheer variety available at the Adler Planetarium ensures that every visitor will have the world of astronomy opened up to them on a level that leaves them informed and inspired.

It is important to begin any examination of the Adler Planetarium by acknowledging that it is so much more than a planetarium. A planetarium by definition is “an instrument that projects the stars, Sun, Moon, planets and other celestial objects upon a large hemispherical dome, showing their motions as viewed from Earth.” The Adler’s two domed theatres technically fit this precise if somewhat mundane definition. But the Adler boasts more that its two sky theatres which is why its full name is The Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum. Similar to the way the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is actually called the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (because without all the costumes, gold records and Jimmy Hendrix’s fourth grade report card it would just be a winding hallway covered with signatures of the honorees leading to a two-floor shrine to U2) the Adler’s headliners’ are supported by two floors of exhibits that honor the science, the history and (most importantly) the future of astronomy.

“About one in every fiveattends with a school group in an organized free program tied to the school’s science curriculum.” My personal experience was as that “one in five”. I was ten years old, attending my Girl Scout troop’s expedition to the Adler Planetarium. Our mission: Obtain the Planetarium badge (and by “Space Ice Cream”, a.k.a. “Mint Chocolate Chip” flavored Styrofoam). It’s a beautiful thing, that badge. Still sewn to my green vest, the Adler’s name and portrait stitched in silver thread that hasn’t faded in fifteen years. I remember riding the “Stairway to the Stars” escalator up to the Sky Theatre to watch what is now titled “Space in your Face”, a program that shows the constellation and planets as though you were lying on your back looking up at the clear night sky. For a ten year old this is all very impressive, but upon my recent journey back to the Planetarium I found that my vague memories of riding a shiny escalator and learning that Pluto and Neptune’s orbits cross were only the tip of the iceberg in regards to exhibits established to educate and enthrall children. Sidebar: The Pluto/Neptune orbit thing was not explained by the shiny escalator, it came from another exhibit that involved pulling the planets out by their strings, one by one (You didn’t know planets had strings, did you) The difference in string lengths signified their distance from the sun.

Hands on activities like the above are the bread and butter of Adler’s youth oriented display. But the Planetarium has even more to offer their young potential successors. Innovative events are vigorously promoted. One such program is the on-going Far Out Fridays program, which by the descriptions has programs meant for adults and children. On the first Friday of every month attendees can take advantage of telescope tutorials and viewing of the night sky, “educational activities,” unlimited viewing in the two theatres (which makes me nauseous just imagining that), a science fiction movie series, and tours of the Doane Observatory. And I believe I have already described my childhood experience at this fine institution. What I didn’t know at the time was that my troop’s visit was part of a larger program Adler has in agreement with scouting organizations like the Girl Scouts & Boy Scouts of America. According to their “group tour” page the tour I took was specifically designed to fulfill the requirements of my Astronomy badge (not the same as the silver Planetarium badge, so two badges I earned, a most profitable day). Countless other girls and boys have taken that same trip in the Adler’s seventy-six year history and had their imaginations sparked. And the need to capture the curiosity of kids is quite understandable. After all children are the futuresource of funding. “Capturing the interest of today’s youngest is vitally important to the future of space sciences. As the night sky becomes more and more difficult to observe, interest in space could very well decline. A generation without an interest in space may not be willing to fund related activities.” The Adler powers that be know very well what a rich resource their young clientele is, as evidenced by a slogan featured prominently on their online home: “Inspiring the next generation of explorers” In addition to their endless future funding potential today’s youth, if properly nurtured and challenged, have the potential to give rise to the next generation of astronomers.

All that nurturing of new science blood has not by any means left the current generation of explorers out in the cold. If I have thus far described a scientific kiddie wonderland entirely filled with space-themed candy and displays three feet high, rest assured this is not the case. The Planetarium is also ground zero for current space innovation. The research process for this paper bears this out. When “Adler Planetarium” was typed into a search field about two hundred articles turned up, the majority of that number not about the planetarium, but authored by people on staff at the Planetarium. These staffers form the backbone of their educational side, yet another facet in this glittering Chicago gem. The Planetarium teaches courses year round, with classes ranging in theme from the Planetarium’s place in Chicago history, for those of us more right brained, (beginning with their place as a premiere exhibit in the 1933 “Century of Progress” World’s Fair) to a class called “Neutrino Astronomy in Antarctic Ice.” Perhaps the most amazing teaching tool in the Adler arsenal is the Cyberspace classroom, where privileged observers can watch real time space craft liftoffs and hear transmissions from said space crafts. Last January, lucky observersobserved the New Horizons probe liftoff from Cape Canaveral on its way to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.

In addition to their regular staffers, the planetarium frequently host prominent guest lecturers at their events (including Far Out Fridays, it’s not just for the kids) to speak on new theories and explorations. The Planetarium also frequently provides a temporary home to important events within “the biz”. One such event being the Pale Blue Dot III Conference, engineered in coordination with the NASA Astrobiology Institute, the purpose of which will be to create a “dialogue” leading to the “development of ideas and methods that may be used for detection of life beyond Earth.” In this program and many others the Adler reinforces that they are eager to coordinate with anyone who can help them achieve their institutional goal of education and exploration. Astronomy magazine in a 2004 editorial hailed a program called “Astronomy Day”: “Each year amateurs rejoice on one day” the editorial proclaims and goes on to describe said program. “Experts at various sites will entertain visitors with a dazzling array of videos, images, presentations, models, and hands-on activities that will show off the mind-boggling events of deep space” The Adler, along with five other large venues throughout the country was one of those sites.

Though the Adler Planetarium is evidently looking ever forward it realizes how much the science of astronomy owes to the past. Two exhibits support this declaration. To begin with, the seriously cool “A Journey with Jim Lovell” exhibit dedicated to the legendary astronaut and his work on the ground-breaking Gemini project. It offers its reverent visitors the breath-taking chance to stand in front of the actual Gemini 12 and read its original flight manual. The second exhibit geared towards the history buffs among us showcases the museums large collection of antique astronomical instruments: “nearly 2000 artifacts dating from the 12th through the 20th centuries” including the 16th century’s intricate and beautiful Astrolabe clocks and a “Hall of Telescopes” featuring pieces spanning five hundred years. The long history that these pieces represent reminds us that though we may identify space exploration with the past forty years, none of our recent discoveries would be possible without the painstaking work done by those who came before us.

“A Planetarium is a place of wonder. It is a place where we are introduced to the night sky without the distraction of city lights. It is a time machine that takes us back to a time long forgotten when Mizar was named or Betelgeuse first listed. In a planetarium we can travel to the moon or other places. Supernovae explode in all their glory. Meteors shower from the sky and the celestial sphere performs its intricate dances for all to see” (Beck & Schrader 26)

I included the above because I think it sums up all the Adler Planetarium is to everyone who visits it. Its many facets allow each of us to experience the wonder of astronomy in our own particular way, but every part works together to create a shining whole. Children can be taught by the greatest astronomical minds and adult can consider the vastness of the universe with childlike wonder. Amateur astronomers of the present can connect to those of the past by seeing their tools and appreciating their struggles. In short, we can all come together and be inspired by this “place of wonder”