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A shot at the stars proves dim

By Charlotte Hsu

Oct. 30, 2003 9:00 p.m.

With a 24-foot-high white-domed ceiling and space for an
audience of about 50, the UCLA planetarium sits quietly on the
eighth-floor rooftop of the Mathematical Sciences building.

The planetarium’s interior ““ a circular room with no
windows ““ is perhaps one of the best places in the city to
view the Los Angeles night sky.

On a Wednesday night, members of the public and UCLA community
can view a free show here. The lights will dim and a thousand
pinpoints of light will emerge from a star projector ““ one
that is older than almost all of the Astronomy 3 students who use
the planetarium for their lab assignments.

The planetarium’s projector system, installed in 1973, is
in poor repair. Multiple efforts to secure funding for a new
projector have been unsuccessful.

With the Griffith Observatory in downtown Los Angeles closed for
a three-year renovation, many in Los Angeles are turning to
UCLA’s planetarium as a resource.

The planetarium holds shows for groups of elementary and middle
school students in addition to weekly shows open to the public.

“Griffith is down so we are having a tremendous amount of
activity, and we don’t have the state-of-the-art equipment
they have,” said Laurie Liles, program administrator for the
physics and astronomy department.

“It’s really, really embarrassing. We’re stuck
with this thing of the 1970s,” she said.

The current projector, a discontinued model, is the third
projector in the planetarium’s history.

UCLA finished building the planetarium in 1957 as part of a $1.4
million construction project that created Mathematical Sciences.
The building and planetarium were designed by Stanton &
Stockwell, the same architecture company that designed Boelter and
Schlicter halls in the following decade.

The planetarium was installed from conception with its first
projector, a model titled Spitz Model A.

By 1965 the physics and astronomy department realized the Spitz
Model A was outdated. The department furnished the planetarium with
a new $8,000 Model Mercury projector that year.

The planetarium was used in much the same manner as it is used
today. Faculty in departments including astronomy, naval science
and physics used it as a teaching tool, and tour groups from
elementary and junior high schools viewed planetarium shows.

To keep up with advancing technology, the department again
sought a new projector in 1972.

“(The Model Mercury) has deteriorated to the point where
it is next to useless today,” wrote George Abell,
then-chairman of the department, in a February 1972 letter to the
UC Board of Regents requesting funding.

Abell’s comments, a distant echo of comments made today by
members of the department, reflected concern about the
projector’s ability to meet the needs of the university and
Los Angeles community.

“Our installation has to be one of the poorest ones among
any of the major universities with planetariums in the
country,” Abell wrote.

A new projector, Abell added, could show the motions of planets
and display a night sky “any date thousands of years in the
past to thousands of years in the future” ““
capabilities Model Mercury did not have.

The need for new equipment was a pressing issue as enrollment in
introduction astronomy courses was rising. The number of students
enrolled in Astronomy 3 reached a then all-time high of 500
students in 1972.

“I cannot demonstrate very well the basic constellations.
The stars are badly out of focus. Many have brightnesses strikingly
different from reality,” wrote Astronomy 3 Professor Miroslav
Plavec in a letter to Abell.

The Board of Regents granted the department’s request for
funding, and a new projector purchased in 1972 was installed a year
later. That projector is still in use today, despite the fact that
the manufacturer no longer supports the technology, said astronomy
Professor Ferdinand Coroniti.

With the 1972 projector in poor repair, Coroniti headed an
effort in 1985 to raise private funds to buy a new one. Coroniti
remembers speaking with representatives from UCLA’s
development office, but said his efforts led nowhere.

The planetarium was shut down completely in 1992 because the
department lacked the resources to maintain the antiquated
equipment, which had ceased to function.

When Liles joined the department in 1994, she saw the
planetarium ““ which had been out of commission for two years
““ as a way for the department to increase its interaction
with the L.A. community.

“I was stunned by the lack of community outreach we were
doing here in astronomy. … The planetarium is just another way to
reach out to the community, and it was dead,” Liles said.

Liles contacted electrical engineering students, who agreed to
repair the projector in exchange for the right to use the
planetarium for LASERAMA, their laser light shows.

The students committed their knowledge and time to the project,
and the planetarium was up and running again by 1996.

“(They) worked hours and hours and hours of their own time
to get it up and working. That was all volunteer work they did. We
didn’t have the manpower in the department ““ it would
have taken a year of someone’s time,” Liles said.

From 1996 to 2000, Michael Spencer, an engineer in the
department of physics and astronomy, volunteered his time to
maintain the planetarium.

Two astronomy graduate students ““ Matthew Barczys and Seth
Hornstein ““ became interested in the planetarium and formed a
Planetarium Committee that meets to discuss pending issues and the
future of the facility.

Astronomy and physics Senior Lecturer Art Huffman, who is on the
committee, said he attempted unsuccessfully to secure funding for a
new projector, which could cost as much as $1 million.

With a bleak budget outlook for the University of California,
securing private donors may be the most viable option for raising
money, which would have capabilities far beyond those of the
current projector.

A new star projector would be able to show more than the two
constellations ““ Orion and Taurus ““ that the 1972
projector can display.

New technology could simulate the reddened “sky”
that often accompanies an eclipse, or zoom in on various details of
a night sky.

Though the possibility of buying a new projector in the near
future is slim, Barczys said he and other graduate students have
made small improvements to the planetarium in the past few

They have created presentations, with topics ranging from the
sun to a history of the U.S. manned space program, to accompany the
planetarium’s 45-minute public shows.

And, with help and funding from the department, the graduate
students have repainted the ceiling of the dome, from a faded a
yellowish color to a gleaming white.

Fluorescent lights that lit the planetarium’s interior for
years have been replaced with houselights that can dim the room

“They’ve taken it to a whole new level,” said
Liles, referring to the students’ dedication to the

Barczys said the next step planned for the planetarium is
repairing the switches on a switchboard that operates the star
projector. The switchboard is nearing the end of its life span.

After that, Barczys said there is little more that can be done
without a new projector. The university and the L.A. community will
just have to wait.

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Charlotte Hsu
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