After more than two years of construction, the Sky Theater at the Triton College Eugene Cernan Space Center finally opened to the public on April 24, 1974. Visitors seated in the comfortable theater could look up to the domed ceiling and see a projection of the night sky. That first show, “Astronomy for Star Gazers,” featured various constellations visible in the heavens.
“The planetarium projector creates the illusion that the audience is outside under the real sky,” explained Linton Pitluga, first director of the Space Center. The projector can also speed up astronomical events in the sky. “For instance,” said Mr. Pitluga, “in nature, the moon revolves around the earth once every 27 days. But in the planetarium it can be made to complete the same cycle in only a few minutes.” Only one structure in the Chicago metro area presents a comparable show: the Adler Planetarium.
The projector consists of two parts: a star ball with more than 4,000 pinholes drilled through it and a planet cage. A zenon arc light within the ball shines through the pinholes, creating an image of the night sky on the ceiling of the auditorium. The cage projects the images of the five visible planets—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—as well as the sun and the moon. In this unique indoor theater, star gazers never have to worry about a cloudy sky impairing their views!
Named for astronaut Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, the Space Center includes a number of artifacts, including the space suit worn by Cernan on his first venture into space aboard the Apollo 10 mission, several pieces of spacecraft navigation equipment, telescopes, and models of the space shuttle and other spacecraft. Cernan attended the dedication ceremonies, which were held on May 23, 1974. Captain Cernan became very supportive of the Space Center because he shared the same ideals as the mission of the institution: To inspire dreams and goals for a new generation of astronauts and explorers of all kinds.
A decade later, in January 1985, a new building was dedicated, again with Cernan in attendance. At its height in the early 1990s, approximately 60,000 people per year visited the Cernan Earth and Space Center. Programs were designed to inspire and educate students and the general public, and covered a variety of topics from exploring the solar system and viewing the night sky to The Space Shuttle: an American Adventure and The Great Barrier Reef.
Although attendance declined over the years, new digital projection technology and improved software are attracting new visitors. Dramatic new programs and an increase in the number of public programs provide opportunities for visitors to develop a greater awareness, understanding, and appreciation for the world and the universe that surrounds us.
Feature shows last approximately one hour and are designed for a wide variety of audiences, from preschoolers to adults. More information and a schedule of shows are available at www.triton.edu/cernan
Submitted by Mary Ann Porucznik, October 2021
Sources: Oak Leaves—November 15, 1972; February 13, 1974; April 17, 1974; May 22, 1974; Triton College website (triton.edu/cernan)