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Abrams Planetarium: Opening Vast New Worlds

  • Author:
    By Paula M. Davenport
  • Published:
    Spring 2015

Lyle Montgomery has been fascinated with the heavens for as long as he can remember. A two-degree graduate of MSU’s Eli Broad College of Business, his interest soared when he experienced his first sky show in Abrams Planetarium with his sophomore natural science class. It was 1964, and Abrams had just opened.

“At that time, most of the learning about the universe was based on a few animated pictures of the solar system and pictures of the Milky Way in a textbook,” recalled Montgomery, an East Lansing resident who’s retired from State Farm Mutual Insurance Co. “Abrams was considered state-of-the art. It was eye opening to experience the night sky clearly overhead in that big dome—and have someone direct us around the galaxy with a pointer light. It greatly increased my curiosity about the heavens.”

Montgomery and his wife, Jeanne, also an MSU graduate, introduced their daughter to the universe’s wonders with regular visits to Abrams. Now, they share Abrams’ skies with their two school-age grandchildren every couple of months.

The planetarium they see has come a long way since 1964. That’s because in conjunction with its 50th anniversary last fall, Abrams installed a new high-end projection system that’s light years ahead of the planetarium’s previous slide- and star-projection technology.

Montgomery said Abrams is now beaming up Disney World-worthy presentations. “You can go anywhere in the universe, zooming in and circling around planetary objects to see them in great detail.”

His grandchildren have already seen two shows since the upgrades. “They were giddy both times,” he said. “They constantly talk about what they experienced and learned. Their understanding of the universe is far beyond anything I had growing up.”

Shannon Schmoll, the planetarium’s new director, said that’s Abrams’ mission. She earned a PhD in astronomy and education from the University of Michigan in 2013, and brings rich experience from having worked for a major museum and in science education.

She said that the planetarium, with about 20,000 visitors a year, of whom 12,000 are children, endeavors to be a place of excitement and wonder. “We hope it plants a seed that might grow into a student’s lifelong interest in science, even if it doesn’t become their career,” Schmoll said.

The planetarium’s new technology allows “us to transport people to and even inside environments—real and imaginary,” she said. Because visualizations now can be projected across the entire dome, visitors feel immersed in whatever they’re watching. Imagine speeding by planets and moons. Cruising through Saturn’s rings. And landing on the surface of Mars.

“We can import digital 3-D models, rotate around them, fly through them and interact with them in different ways, viewing them from different viewpoints and perspectives,” Schmoll said.

And there’s a huge value added with the new system. The types of images and environments you might experience are nearly unlimited. So armchair travelers could conceivably browse the open-air Dubai Bazaar. Botanists could wander among wildflowers swaying in a summer meadow.

The planetarium hosts various university classes, too. Given its latest tools, it might one day screen full animation student creations. Architecture students could virtually ramble through Rome’s Coliseum. And aspiring doctors might delve into the human brain without so much as an incision.

“We’re trying to get the word out that we’re interested in exploring other ways in which the new system may be useful for people,” Schmoll said. “It’s not just astronomy anymore, though that’s still our focus.”

The College of Natural Science is responsible for the planetarium.
Schmoll said she’s living her career dream. Trained in astronomy, museum studies and education, she enjoys the outreach component of her job in the well-appointed, yet informal environment.

Through her work, she said she hopes to transfer to others the importance of science and technology in our lives—and connect that with arts, culture and history. “I want to spread appreciation of what we learn here.”

Next time you’re on campus, take some time to do a little stargazing of your own.
The Abrams Planetarium is named in honor of Talbert “Ted” and Leota Abrams, who in the 1960s contributed a major gift to establish a space science education center. Ted Abrams was a leader in the field of aerial photography.

Inspired as a child by the Wright brothers, Ted Abrams began working at local airports and eventually learned how to fly while working for the Curtiss Aeroplane Company in Buffalo, N.Y. In 1916, he earned his pilot’s license, signed by none other than Orville Wright himself.

Abrams enlisted in the Marines in 1917 and his squadron used detailed aerial maps to help track movements of rebel troops. That’s when Abrams grew interested in aerial photography. When he mustered out, he purchased his first plane and started his own business. He used his aerial photographs to try and convince people to experience flight. But he soon realized they’d rather buy aerial photos than pay for plane rides.
Abrams went on to start numerous companies that designed better aerial cameras and equipment and created better aircraft for aerial photography.                                                       

His Model P-1 Explorer now resides in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. After selling the Abrams Instrument Corporation in 1961, Ted and his wife visited 96 countries, the Arctic and Antarctica. They also created the Abrams Foundation in Lansing. The foundation, which is still active, made a significant gift to help fund the planetarium.?