Stars take center stage at Oakland's new science center

OAKLAND, Calif. - Mildred Ivory watches in amazement as the Milky Way spills across a black sky sprinkled with streaking meteors, fuzzy comets, brilliant planets and thousands of twinkling stars.

The 11-year-old Oakland girl has never seen anything like it from home, where the night is overwhelmed by city lights. But she didn't have to trek into the country for the view, just across town to the new Chabot Space and Science Center planetarium.

''I don't have a telescope,'' she said after a brief preview show. ''I want one.''

Her reaction was heartening to organizers of the $76 million center, an 86,000-square-foot shrine to the stars that replaces a smaller complex built in 1915. It opens Aug. 19 after a decade of planning by the city, school district and other groups.

The center includes a planetarium that accurately projects stars onto a 70-foot dome and giant telescopes to see the real thing. Interactive exhibits focus on space and exploration. Wide-format science films are shown on another big dome, nearly filling it.

''We live science every day. We just don't know it,'' said Jose Olivarez, Chabot's director of astronomy. ''This is a way to connect us to our scientific world through the stars, which every human being has an interest in.''

Surrounded by redwoods and pines covering 13 acres of Joaquin Miller Park in the Oakland Hills, the new Chabot center is intended to spark the curiosity of children who visit and reinforce what they learn through online programs and lesson plans.

''Their focused mission on astronomy education is really like none other in the country,'' said Derrick Pitts, director of the Fels Planetarium in Philadelphia. ''Everything in that entire complex is focused on astronomy education.''

Up to 250,000 visitors are expected annually, including 50,000 schoolchildren. Besides the exhibits, planetarium and observatory, visitors can participate in science labs and mock space shuttle missions. Teachers will be offered extra science training.

''The truth of the matter is that an awful lot of our kids have never been up in the parks,'' said Oakland City Councilman Dick Spees. ''They've never seen the night sky from a meadow.''

Plagued for years by high crime, crumbling schools and rampant poverty, Oakland seems an unlikely location for a science center that rivals those in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and its more glamorous neighbor across the bay, San Francisco.

But Oakland had a will - specifically, the will of 19th-century water engineer Anthony Chabot, who endowed a downtown observatory for the city schools on the condition that views be provided to the public for free.

The original Oakland observatory moved in 1915 to a Victorian building on a low ridge near Mills College. A small planetarium funded by the Rotary Club was added in the 1960s to spice up field trips for school groups.

In 1977, school children were barred from the observatory because of a combination of its age and proximity to the Hayward fault. Light pollution from East Bay sprawl also made viewing difficult at best.

The telescopes, which many consider to be some of the finest in the world available for public viewing, needed a new home. But the school district and the city were having trouble funding even basic services.

''The city owned the land. The schools owned the buildings. And everybody was arguing what do you do with it,'' Spees said. ''That is where it all began.''

Spees helped create a joint powers agency in 1989 that included the school system, the city and the park district.

The new agency received funding from corporations, foundations as well as the state and federal governments. Partnerships were formed with universities, national labs and the Smithsonian Institution. The East Bay Astronomical Society volunteered to refurbish the aging telescopes.

Rather than constructing buildings and then figuring out how to fill them, planners of the new facility spent years developing a program before designing any buildings, said Mike Reynolds, Chabot's executive director.

''It was a very different kind of process,'' he said. ''A lot of facilities build the buildings and then ask, 'What do we do with this thing once it's built?''

From curvaceous architecture inspired by celestial orbits and spheres to the sculptures and paintings on the walls, visitors are reminded of the center's focus on astronomy and space's connection to the arts and humanities.

''The beauty of astronomy is that it not only feeds wonderfully into the other sciences but also into art and music,'' Reynolds said. ''The beauty of the universe is artistic, whether it is something that is painted or something you hear.''

By the end of the year, the telescopes will be open to the public for free on Friday and Saturday nights. Tickets for the entire center can cost as much as $19.75 for the planetarium, dome movie theater and exhibits.

Teachers who recently visited the still-unfinished center were pleased.

''This is just enormous,'' said David Laub, a high school math and physics teacher at Oakland's Castlemont High School. ''Students will come up here and they'll be able to go on trips that they couldn't possibly go on before.''


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