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Planetarium brings stars ‘down to earth’
By C.M. Powell
(956) 381-2741
Posted: 09/21/1997
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The Planetarium, a much-visited part of the Pan American University campus after its construction in the summer of 1963 during the "space race" and the arly days of artificial satellites, is coming to life again this fall — with a new look and a new name.

Now a focal point in the courtyard of The University of Texas-Pan American’s new $26 million Science Building, the Planetarium had to be closed during construction of the new facility and will reopen sometime this fall.

Besides a major facelift, the Planetarium also has a new name — the H-E-B Planetarium, which was approved by The University of Texas System Board of Regents in August. The name change recognizes

H-E-B Grocery Co.’s support to the university, which over the last 10 years has included more than $136,000 for scholarships and other programs. The company also has pledged its continued support in the amount of $20,000 a year for the next seven years.

When the Planetarium was built in 1963, "space was a big deal," according to William Morris, assistant vice president for academic affairs, who began his coursework for his astro-sciences degree at Pan American College soon after the Planetarium was completed.

The original workings of the Planetarium — the inner dome and the projection system — were donated to Pan American College by the U.S. Air Force from the air base in Harlingen, with assistance from the Moonwatch Division of the Smithsonian Astro-physical Observatory.

"The Planetarium itself came from the Harlingen air base," Morris said. "It was originally used to train navigators to navigate by the stars.

"It’s one of the early Spitz models. It’s not anything like the new computer-controlled ones they have now, but it works."

A multi-sided box with tiny pinholes drilled in it, with a small point source of light that shines out the holes, the Planetarium projects an artificial sky and its various motions as seen from different parts of the earth — even as it was many centuries in the past.

"Some of the holes are so small that dust will clog them. At some point, somebody in the Air Force decided that it (the box) should be blue, and they painted it and ‘lost’ a number of the very faint stars," Morris said. "At the time I was involved in refurbishing it, we removed all of that and cleaned out as many of the holes as we could, but the problem was finding even a tiny needle that could go in some of the holes, because they’re so small."

In the 1960s, the Planetarium was a popular attraction. Each year thousands of school children, youth groups and civic organizations attended Planetarium presentations created and run by a cadre of college students in the astro-sciences program, particularly those like Morris who were in the planetarium management track, for whom the presentations were a degree requirement.

"Back in the olden days, we had a very successful and ongoing program with the area school districts," he said. "They bused in tons of kids to attend Planetarium shows. Many of the student workers, including myself, put on the shows."

Planetarium presentations for school groups continued, conducted by Dr. Sam Giuoco, chair of the Department of Physics and Geology, and Brad Stiles, a laboratory assistant in the department, right up until the time the Planetarium was closed for its renovation and for the construction of the new Science Building around it. Though not in the numbers of the peak years of the 1960s, the Planetarium saw about 2,000 visitors a year — students, teachers, aides and parents — in the years immediately preceding the renovation.

The Planetarium also is used for laboratories in astronomy and physical science courses. Astronomy classes use the Planetarium for probably about a fourth of their laboratories, Giuoco said.

"We use the Planetarium for the labs dealing with the position of the planets, recognition of constellation and star groups, and variations with the seasons. We missed it a lot this past year."

The 1,373-square-foot Planetarium was a major component of Pan American College’s bachelor of science program in astro-sciences.

"It (astro-sciences) was a unique program that combined astronomy, astronautics and astrophysics," Morris said.

"Most students double-majored in physics and astro-science or math and astro-science, because there was a sizeable physics component and math component in the degree, but it was always a small program," he said. "When I was in it, we probably had 50 majors, and I think when I graduated there were seven or eight graduates."

Astro-sciences was discontinued as a degree program in 1973.

"The enrollment had dropped off in the program, and we were under pressure from the Coordinating Board to cut back low production programs," Morris said.

Paul Engle, who Morris characterized as the father and "guiding force" of the astro-sciences program, left the university soon after the degree was dropped to start the Earth Science program and establish a planetarium at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He has since passed away.

Another faculty member in the program, Dr. Fred Ellis — whose students have included both Morris and Giuoco — started teaching at Pan American in 1966. He was honored as a Master Professor earlier this year and is still teaching in the Department of Physics and Geology.

The Planetarium is expected to be open again sometime during the fall semester.

"The public school teachers are wild to know when it will be open again — they want to bring their students," Giuoco said.

"Now that the Planetarium has been remodeled and updated, we are sure that it will become a much more effective tool in our classrooms. We believe that the enhancement of the Planetarium will greatly increase the public’s enjoyment of the presentations. It is the centerpiece of the (Science Building) courtyard."