Swing on a Star

The St. Louis Science center unveils the freshly refurbished McDonnell Planetarium

What's all the excitement about? What could draw the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra away from their air-conditioned lair to the Forest Park archery range, where they will valiantly wage an out-of-doors battle with fireworks and lasers in a downright Wagnerian spectacle of bombast?

That would be the opening of the freshly renovated James S. McDonnell Planetarium portion of the St. Louis Science Center. After a mysterious one-year period of dormancy, our local space station is open for business.

Visitors to the museum's aeronautically themed north wing will now be corralled into small groups and led by guides into the StarShuttle. It's actually an elevator lined with blinking lights and controls that won't fool anybody, but it's pretty cool.

The lift stops at the StarBridge, a ring of exhibits meant to simulate a futuristic space station. Below lies the StarBay, another ring of interactive exhibits where you can see how astronauts eat, sleep, poop and medicate.

It's fun and it's cool, but will it make you drool? Maybe not, but the $3.5 million Zeiss Universarium Planetarium Model IX star projector will. Only three other star projectors in the world have all the bells and whistles this thing does, but it's the way the folks at the Science Center have chosen to use it that's so unusual. About twice an hour, there will be an informal star show with narration. Visitors may drag soft portable stools from the periphery to the center of the huge, dark domed room, or they can just stand and enjoy. Between presentations, people will enter the cool, blackness and approach Science Center docents for explanations of the constant night-sky projection of 9,000 stars or what the projector can do.

It is a strangely laid-back approach to show off an ungodly expensive new toy and an essentially brand-new museum. Step into the StarBay, and you'll see how effective the soft-sell can be.

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