The Baker Planetarium Brings Space Exploration Down to Earth

Here’s why every wandering mind should visit Space City.

By Amarie Gipson March 31, 2022

It’s no secret that the past two years have been equal parts interesting and rough. A global health crisis, social unrest, a war and more have undoubtedly left many seeking relief in whatever we can find. 

For me, space films have always been a source of both inspiration and escape. Without the surround sound or 3-D experience of my typical movie theater, I managed to find solace in the cinematic experience of gazing up at the night sky. Between the resurgence of NASA’s Artemis program, Jeff Bezos launching himself into space eight hours outside of Houston and Netflix’s Don’t Look Up, the pandemic has sparked an increased interest in life beyond Earth. 

For Dr. Carolyn Sumners, educator and VP of astronomy and physics at the Burke Baker Planetarium, this surge in space enthusiasm has made her work even more exciting. “If the moon doesn’t become a real destination, we don’t learn what it takes for humans to live beyond Earth,”  she tells Houstonia in a phone call from the Houston Museum of Natural Science. “Star Trek and Star Wars make it look so easy, but it’s not. There’s an entire ecosystem that we have to take up there.”  

Since 1964, the BBP has played a role in our nation’s quest to explore the cosmos. It’s renowned for its special connection to NASA (it’s where astronauts were trained on how to identify star fields) and remains Houston’s go-to destination for all things astronomy. Sumners has led the planetarium since 1970 and has continued to inspire generations of Houstonians. For her, the most rewarding aspect of her work and research is sharing with kids on special tours each day. 

“It’s important that the students see these things to help them find a connection to their own past,” she says. “The dark night sky is the legacy of all humans, your grandparents and your ancestors. It’s where the history of our thoughts is written. It’s really magical, and it’s right in your backyard.”

In 2016, Baker Planetarium was completely renovated to create a more updated, immersive experience using advanced Digistar 6 technology. Entering the theater feels somewhat similar to walking around your average AMC. Visitors move through a dimly lit hall where posters, glass-cased artifacts (such as a boot from an actual astronaut's spacesuit), and screens with inspiring quotes about astronomy lead visitors to the theater’s entrance. The planetarium’s sharp image of the night sky is made possible by 10 projectors and 20 computers that work together to produce a seamless 360-degree view of the solar system in 8k to match the resolution of the human eye. 

“We want this to feel like it’s real, like you’re out in the middle of West Texas and you’re looking up at the sky,” Sumners says. “People treat the planetarium like a movie theater, but it’s a lot more like an experience. We want to show things that give people the most adventure they can have despite time, space or distance.”

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed Sumners and the BBP to readjust the visitor experience, such as an improved air circulation system and cuts to the duration of the films, in order to mitigate exposure and allow for proper sanitation for an overall safer experience in the theater. The BBP has 11-13 shows a day, each between 20-30 minutes in length, to give visitors a chance to see new and old favorites, such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which has been screened for the past 30 years. Despite these slight changes, Sumners considers 2021 to be a hugely successful year with presentations like Death of the Dinosaurs and Are We Really Alone that dominated the summer. 

As the planetarium continues routine school tours and screenings, the BPP is working to expand its reach for the safest possible experience for Houstonians and beyond. 

Tickets to the Burke Baker Planetarium start at $9 for adults. For hours and more information, visit here.

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