116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
WATERLOO — Tucked in a far corner of the Grout Museum lies a plain wooden door with a simple sign: Norris Corson Family Planetarium.
But that simple door opens to an out-of-this-world experience. Settle down in one of 30 new theater-style seats that tilt you back just enough to gaze at the silvery white dome overhead. And then hold on for a magical ride through the cosmos.
Your body won’t move, but your mind will be blown as your galactic tour guide shows you where this revamped facility can take you. Be prepared to be ahhhed.
I may have said “wow” out loud a couple of times, but I was the only person who snapped up a ticket for last week’s Wednesday matinee. My tour guide, John Nicol, 25, of West Union, assured me that “oohs,” “aahs” and “wows” are common occurrences, whether one or a full house of 30 viewers are along for a 30- to 45-minute ride through the star-studded skies.
The tour takes a little longer when the room is filled with students who get more of a science lesson — and get more vocal, Nicol said.
What: Norris Corson Family Planetarium
Where: Inside the Grout Museum of History & Science, 503 South St., Waterloo
Parking: Handicapped lot behind the museum, general parking lot under Highway 218
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; masks required
Admission: Museum: $12 adults, $6 veterans, college students and children 4 to 13, free ages 3 and under; museum admission also must be purchased to visit the planetarium.
The planetarium, built in the 1950s, reopened in December after a yearlong shutdown and more than $206,000 in renovations that stripped the space down to the bare walls before rebuilding it anew.
“Essentially, everything except the dome was removed,” Carrsan Morrissey, director of programming and outreach for the Grout Museum District, said via email.
The white dome was repainted in “a silvery color like a movie screen,” Morrissey noted. The walls were painted, new carpet was laid and a new projection system was installed by Bowen Technovation.
"This new system can do so much,“ Morrissey said. ”It works off an extremely powerful computer which allows us to not only show the stars, but also planets, moons and even galaxies. It's truly an amazing piece of technology.”
It replaces the "Star Ball" or "Star Projector" system, “a metal sphere with very precisely placed holes in it and a very bright light bulb inside which projects the stars onto the ceiling,” Morrissey said.
“We went through a few of those until, in the last couple years, our star ball finally broke down. From that point, we were using a very generously donated star projector which worked well, but couldn't do a whole lot more than show just the stars.”
Fundraising launched before COVID-19 hit, and the subsequent pandemic pause shutdown had an upside.
"While this was obviously an extremely unfortunate and stressful situation at the time, it allowed us a lot of time to focus on the project,“ Morrissey said. ”The funds were raised, both from generous donors and the public, and then we got to work.“
Now it was Nicol’s turn to work his magic as I settled into a comfy seat.
"We’ve got 61 individually customizable and programmable lights that create any light the human eye is capable of seeing,“ Nicol said, ”and so we can create beautiful effects like this sort of rainbow effect. We can do some neat stuff like the Grout's logo colors all the way around — our green, red, blue and yellow behind you. Or one that I did relatively recently (that) took a little while — a little circus tent sort of feeling — so if we did some sort of show about animals or something, we could have this up as people came into the planetarium.
“But this is, of course, not what is the most interesting part of the planetarium. We want to be looking at the sky.”
Today’s visitors can see Earth’s horizon, the moon and the stars hither and yon, all to lively narration from staff members like Nicol. From the very beginning, I knew my star guide had been a theater major in college. He was so lively and animated, punching up the fun in the fundamentals of what was happening overhead.
I don’t want to reveal all the revelations, but I didn’t know Uranus has rings akin to Saturn, and that many of the moons around the seventh planet from the Sun are named for Shakespearean characters.
As beautiful as the pinpoint stars and galaxy washes are, when the star clusters are turned into constellations, and then filled in to illustrate their names, it’s truly jaw dropping.
Nicol also revealed the fascinating folklore behind some of the constellation names.
“Ursa Major is an incredibly interesting constellation because there were two ancient civilizations that both looked up in the sky, saw that shape and said, ‘Well, yeah, that right there is a really big bear.’ And those two civilizations were the ancient Greeks and the Native Americans. … They're separated by an entire ocean and have no way of communicating with each other, but when they look to the sky, they saw the same thing. However, they have very different stories as to how that happened.”
From Nicol’s research, the Greek tale involves gods, vengeance and a bear being flung into the sky. The Native American story focuses on a bear who steals food in the night and hides by day, and the three hunters who track it to the edge of the Earth, where the bear jumps into the sky. Since they dare not go home empty-handed, they follow the bear into the sky, where they continue their quest.
Students on field trips aren’t the only ones who will walk away knowing so much more than when they entered the room. The tour guides hurl plenty of facts through time and space, making this a trip of a lifetime just 55 miles northwest of Cedar Rapids and 82 miles northwest of Iowa City, both via I-380 and Highway 218.
The planetarium is just the tip of attractions at the Grout Museum. But be forewarned that the museum closes at 4 p.m., so go early in the day to wander the displays and temporary exhibits in these other parts of the Grout Museum District:
Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum, 503 South St.: The focus is on American military at war and at peace, from the Civil War to Iraq and Afghanistan. You’ll see a tank, part of a helicopter and interactive displays with narration as well as veterans’ voices of experience. You’ll also learn about the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, who died when the U.S.S. Juneau was torpedoed in November 1942, during the World War II battle of Guadalcanal.
Grout Museum of History & Science, 503 South St.: Adjoining the Veterans Museum, this adjacent facility includes permanent and changing exhibits illustrating Waterloo’s early days, from a log cabin and general store, to artifacts from that factories that shaped the city. And of course, it’s where you’ll find the planetarium.
Bluedorn Science Imaginarium, 322 Washington St.: A three-floor interactive science center has more than 60 hands-on exhibits looking at how science dovetails with daily life — especially light and electricity, momentum, liquid, gases and sound. Open 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; admission, $6, free ages 3 and under.
Rensselaer Russell House Museum, 520 W. Third St.: Audio wand lets you explore the Victorian interior, including an 1889 Steinway grand piano and belongings from a century of living for the Russell family, from 1861-1963. Open by appointment; admission,: $6, free ages 3 and under.
Snowden House, 306 Washington St.: This 1881 Victorian Italianate home is available for rentals only. Details: (319) 234-6357.
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