When New York City's American Museum of Natural History announced a few years ago that it would be rebuilding its hallowed Hayden Planetarium from the ground up, lots of New Yorkers screamed to the heavens--and Neil de Grasse Tyson, the planetarium's recently appointed director, couldn't blame them. For more than 60 years, the Hayden had been bringing the stars to sky-deprived city dwellers, and its frumpy dome, slapped onto the museum's north side, had played host to generations of visitors. That included Tyson himself, whose career as an astrophysicist was first inspired by visits to the Hayden from his boyhood Bronx.
But as a scientist and educator, Tyson also knew that the existing planetarium, with its '30s design and technology, didn't come close to conveying the astonishing discoveries modern astronomy has made in the past few decades, from the Big Bang to black holes. Plummeting attendance in recent years simply confirmed that the Hayden was more compelling as memory than as fact. So Tyson set aside his nostalgia, sat down with architect James Polshek and exhibition designer Ralph Applebaum and got to work.
Last week, four years and $210 million later, the new Hayden (and the Rose Center for Earth and Space that surrounds it) finally made its debut--and it's already clear that this is not your grandfather's planetarium. First there's the building itself--a 10-story glass-walled cube with an 87-ft. aluminum sphere seemingly floating within it. Then there's the space around the sphere. While the old Hayden had only a handful of faded exhibitions to get visitors into a cosmic mood, the new planetarium is overstuffed with information. "We don't really expect anyone to get it all in one visit," says Tyson.
The easiest place to start is the Scaling Walk, which surrounds the sphere just below its equator. As you begin your circumnavigation, the sphere becomes a reference for the relative sizes of objects in the universe. At one point, it represents the sun, while smaller spheres, from a few inches to a few feet across, portray the eight planets. (Not nine. Many astronomers, Tyson explains, now believe that Pluto is not a full-fledged planet.) A bit farther along, the sphere represents a molecule that dwarfs the footwide atom mounted to the railing.
Back on the ground floor, as the giant sphere hovers overhead, you enter the Hall of the Universe. It features, among other things, a video wall flashing the very latest astronomical images, including downloads from the Hubble Space Telescope, and an updated version of the Hayden's popular "how much you'd weigh on other worlds" scales.
But the Rose's centerpiece, literally and dramatically, is the planetarium itself, located in the upper half of the sphere. The stars inside actually twinkle, thanks to the Hayden's one-of-a-kind Zeiss Mark IX projector. It even projects stars you can't see, unless you bring binoculars into the dome, and shows constellations with 3-D reality. A second projection system, driven by a Silicon Graphics supercomputer loaded with real astronomical data, lets visitors "fly" beyond the Milky Way. As they look back on their gradually diminishing home, it becomes just one more speck amid a lacy network of galaxies in the immense void.