The observatory and planetarium complex is first, a research facility and second, a public destination. Technology and astronomical scholarship are celebrated here. Butler astronomy students know their telescope history and mechanics as well as nighttime observation details. It's a treat to be able to walk in from the street and connect with something vastly more infinite than your everyday life, but don't expect a "cutting-edge science museum" planetarium experience.
The Holcomb Observatory and Planetarium was built in 1954 as part of Butler University's centennial celebration. It was engineered to house a new 38-inch telescope - a drastic upgrade from the 6-inch apparatus astronomy students had been using since 1880 - and was meant to be a campus landmark. Its dome stands atop a low, sweeping green hill that serves as a common area for visitors. Waiting for the building to open on this particular evening, we made use of that lawn to get in a little physical activity.
When the building opened in the 1950s, its designers envisioned a lobby to rival the heavenly views soon-to-be observed through the telescope lens. From the 14-foot terrazzo floor depicting the astronomical zodiac constellations to the chandelier bursting from the ceiling like an exploding star, the small lobby manages to feel mid-century grand.
Just as the lobby feels vintage 1950s so, too, does the planetarium. Human comfort, perhaps, was not taken into account by the architects. The small theater seats offer low backs and all the comfort of highly polished, well-used wood. These are not the cushy, slightly reclined seats we have all become accustomed to; these are old-school.
While the university has not spent the money on audience comfort, they have invested in tools to continue their research and aid in student learning. In the spring of 2018, they upgraded their star theater with a digital projector that produces stunning colors and effects. We experienced a beautiful hour-long planetarium show that inspired questions and big conversation among my family. Following the program, we were given a quick tour of the Indianapolis night sky as an astronomy student pointed out a handful of easy-to-find constellations. Unfortunately, we were looking at the winter sky... in the middle of July. We would not be applying this new knowledge to our backyard stargazing for quite a few more months.
At last, it was telescope time! Once in the observatory, a student offered a brief orientation to the mechanics and tools in the space. Then we watched as the telescope and dome rotated to become oriented to the first object of interest, Saturn. As we waited for our turn in line, we tried to peek out of the dome's opening to show the boys what the planet looked with the naked eye so they would soon be able to compare the visual difference.
When it was finally our turn at the telescope, we climbed the rickety scaffold-like staircase and leaned way over the shaking railing to peer into the eyepiece. It was most certainly a setup meant for adults (naturally). It was apparent that we would have to lift both of the boys to reach the eyepiece, even the tall-for-his-age 80-pound kid. Over a not so sturdy railing. On a platform that was about 6 square feet. While attempting to aim their eye at the eyepiece. While discouraging them to touch the telescope. While other people were waiting for their turn. We're pretty sure only one of the boys actually saw what they were supposed to.
With a slightly better understanding of the situation, we were more successful when it was time to view Jupiter. The youngest reported that he had seen a white ball. The oldest had been held steady enough to see two moons as well as the planet.
As the astronomy student turned the telescope toward Mars, our family called it a night. As it happens with viewing the night sky, it was getting very late. Why not end on the largest planet in Solar System?
Keep looking up,
Pete is the founder of Piggyback App. At the time of writing this description, he may or may not be on a horse.