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History of the Planetarium

Curie Hall was built in 1971 as part of an expansion of the science facilities of Radford University. A small teaching planetarium was envisioned by Dr. Franklin Jones and the other members of the then-Physical Science Department. At the end of the main construction of Curie Hall (which was later to be joined to the other science building, Reed Hall), the cubic outer building that was to house the planetarium dome was finished. However, it was discovered that funds for the proposed inner dome itself had been used for other construction, and Radford University found itself facing a dilemma.

The problem was solved in-house. Glen Williams was the building and grounds director for Radford at that time. He put word out that he needed someone from the pool of his people who could work with building materials such a plaster and steel framing. Two people matched the criteria, Mr. Harold Lester and Mr. Ken Hall. They were told that they were to construct the planetarium dome on their own. Mr. Lester and Mr. Hall visited various planetaria and came up with a design that makes our planetarium unique in the region.

Most planeteria have ceilings that come in prefabricated panels that are suspended from a cubic outer building. These panels are usually semi-opaque screens that allow projection equipment to be located behind the screens. When projectors inside the dome turn their lights onto the screens, that light shows up on the screen and--for the most part--does not "leak through" into the open area behind the screens themselves. This leakage allows visitors at many planeteria to see the support structures behind the screens at other planetaria. This is often a minor distraction, but, due to the design of the Radford planetarium dome, it is a distraction we do not suffer.

Mr. Lester and Mr. Hall constructed their dome by suspending a steel and wire frame from the inside of the cubic building that was already in place. They forced a thick layer of hard plaster into the heavy wire mesh of their 24-foot diameter dome. Most prefabricated dome panels give their domes a piece-wise look since the panels themselves can not be perfectly curved. Mr. Lester and Mr. Hall created a 900 "trowel" for making their ceiling into a perfectly smooth semi-circle. Unlike prefab domes, there are no seams in our dome, nor is there anything to interrupt the surface of the dome. The only break in this seamless dome came about when the fire extinguisher system was put in place. There is small cap covering a sprinkler in the apex of the dome, a feature that actually is used in the planetarium shows to locate the zenith of the sky for sky observations. Included among our guests have been visitors to and operators of various planetaria throughout the region and beyond, and a common question after viewing the shows has been, "Where are your seams?" When told of the design of our planetarium, they immediately appreciate its uniqueness.

The rest of the history of the planetarium involved the addition of various features as budgets would allow. In the few years after construction, only the dome revealed the structure to be a planetarium. Astronomy instruction was handled with slide projectors through the two semi-opaque screens located in one side wall of the planetarium (not through the dome). The 32 permanent seats were installed in 1975. One unique feature of these seats is the rectangle of the Tartan Plaid inlaid in the sides of each outer seat on every row. The dome's star projector and manual control console, along with a reel-to-reel tape-based sound system, was installed in 1979.

Over the years the projection and sound capabilites of the planetarium have been updated. Currently, we use the star projector along with a Newtonian-mirror system that allows for full-dome multimedia shows. These shows are professionally produced, and are listed on our page "About the Shows."

In October of 1999, the Department of Chemistry and Physics at Radford University began offering public planetarium shows. In the first 14 months of operation of these weekly shows, over 1,500 guests were treated to the handiwork of Mr. Lester and Mr. Hall. Over the following years, the RU Planetarium has become a part of the educational culture of both the university and the surrounding region. Our visitors include school groups, Elderhostel groups, Scout and community groups, and anyone else who would like an adventure with us. Our Science Days have been a great success in recent years, with nearly 2,000 K-12 students taking advantage of these all-day science experiences in our building each year. And overall, we are approaching a cumulative total of nearly 30,000 visitors.

Still coordinated by Dr. Herman, and housed in the now standalone Department of Physics, we hope you come visit the planetarium, and let us bring you to the stars!