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Clear Skies - guaranteed!

The night sky has never been so clear - at least along the 300-mile stretch of Interstate 5 running through Oregon and Washington. That's because whenever there's a call for Clear Skies, Starlab planetarium owners John Lang and Anne Kennedy, a dynamic husband-and-wife team, pack the portable dome into their Toyota 4x4 pickup, and the traveling show hits the road. "We go in rain, sleet, or snow," says Lang, "and we'll guarantee clear skies, as long as you don't leave the dome."

In the cloud-plagued Pacific Northwest you can't trust the weather for scheduled outdoor astronomy programs. It's too unpredictable. But Lang found a way to skirt that problem. Enter Clear Skies, an interactive planetarium show that brings the wonders of the night sky to young people. Since Lang conceived the program about five years ago, he has reached tens of thousands of amateur skywatchers. Last year the program educated over 22,000 people, 30 at a time. "That's a lot of shows," Lang admits, "but it's a neat lifestyle. Imagine, I work in my stocking feet!"

Kennedy entered Lang's life in 1982 when she leased a cabin on his property and he became her landlord. At that time neither of them knew much about the night sky, except that it was there, and that it was beautiful. Lang owned a business of mounting hot tubs on trailers and renting them out; Kennedy had just graduated from Evergreen State College and was working in a bookstore. Soon Kennedy found herself building and cleaning hot tubs. They married in 1987 and enjoyed the stars, every now and then, from their mobile creations.

Their introduction to astronomy began that year too, when Kennedy landed a job in California developing an environmental education program for elementary and high-school students in the Hesperia Unified School District. One duty, she recalls, was to figure out how to use the district's Starlab planetarium. "I had no background in astronomy at all," she confesses, "but I had to create a program."

So Kennedy teamed up with Bob Riddle, who originated Project Starwalk - a nationally recognized planetarium program for kids. Riddle taught her the ropes, stressing the conceptual aspects of astronomy - the seasons, constellations, the apparent motion of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars, and so on.

The following year found Kennedy assisting Riddle in Oklahoma with Project TEACH. Unlike Project Starwalk, which concentrated on planetarium activities, the new endeavor focused on classroom activities that integrated astronomy into other disciplines such as writing and social studies.

"The idea," Kennedy says, "was to take astronomy out of the textbook and make it more accessible." She used globes, orreries, and celestial spheres to help teachers understand the same concepts covered in Project Starwalk. She knew that many schools have these great teaching tools gathering dust in their closets. "These teachers never had a chance to touch astronomy," Kennedy says. "It is really wonderful to see the light bulbs go on when the teachers get that 'ah-hah' that comes from 'playing' around with scale models and figuring out how the Sun-Earth-Moon system works."

In 1989 Kennedy's growing interest about the sky led her back to California, where she joined other planetarium instructors in attending the Participatory Oriented Planetarium Studies at Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science. This program emphasized the use of the planetarium as a laboratory, turning astronomy education into an active, not passive, endeavor. Meanwhile, Lang earned his teaching certificate and began working with Kennedy at the Outdoor School in Hesperia. After a year of coteaching environmental education and astronomy, they moved to Portland, Oregon. Then Lang purchased his own Starlab and the two worked together to create a dynamic, traveling planetarium show. Clear Skies was born.


At the heart of Clear Skies is a portable Starlab planetarium and its star projector. The dome measures 16 feet across, inflates with a fan, and seats about 30 people. Like its bigger, permanent counterpart, Starlab's projector can accurately simulate the day or night sky at any time of the year from anywhere on Earth.

Lang is the program's soul, making the show an entertaining blend of astronomy, earth science, history, and folklore. In his shows Lang doesn't use mathematical equations or expect the audience to remember obscure names of stars or constellations. "What I want my audience to leave with is a basic understanding of why the sky looks like it does, to be able to build a mental model of our universe and appreciate how, over time, different cultures have explained and exploited the sky."

What is unique about Lang's approach is the way he involves his young audience. For example, after he uses line drawings to reveal constellation patterns, he might put up a star field, give kids the pointer, and ask them to identify the Big Dipper. "I give them the power of the planetarium," Lang says. "It jazzes them. They get to use this wild, red flashlight."

Lang also incorporates simple but effective technology in the shows. In addition to the star projector, his gadgets include a cove-light system (which can illuminate the area around the horizon), a four-track sound system, and a slide projector with a zoom lens. His tape deck is a musical palette, which he uses to paint mental imagery or to help transport you through time.

Lang can run tracks of space music (for atmosphere), native and Egyptian music (for historical mood setting), ocean sounds (for the navigation programs), or crickets (so you can feel as if you're out in the woods). Or he can use all of them, and just fade them in and out when the mood changes. Lang can also create special effects, like a comet that starts small near the horizon and gets bigger (by zooming it) until it's overhead. "It's cheesy," he admits, "but it works!"


Lang and Kennedy's ultimate goals are to increase student interest and enthusiasm for science by exploring astronomy in artistic and meaningful ways. Today the 36-year-old Kennedy continues her passion for learning and teaching. She is now program coordinator for math and science education in a program jointly funded by Educational Service District 112 and Washington State University in Vancouver.

As for 48-year-old Lang, he wants to keep traveling with Clear Skies and to sell people on astronomy. Perhaps someday he can afford to train people to run the show for him. But these are challenging times, because of major cutbacks in funding for academic programs. Fortunately, his five years of effort have already made an impression in the community, and more and more people are becoming aware of Clear Skies. He can now fill a year's schedule with just one mailing. Last year, for example, Lang traveled about a week a month. This year he's been on the road for two weeks a month.

Most of his programs are within 20 miles of I-5 because 80 percent of the population of Oregon and Washington lives there. If you're interested in seeing this program, write to Clear Skies, 10300 SW Fourth Ave., Portland, OR 97219.

Contributing editor O'Meara observes from the clear skies of his home in Volcano, Hawaii.
COPYRIGHT 1996 All rights reserved. This copyrighted material is duplicated by arrangement with Gale and may not be redistributed in any form without written permission from Sky & Telescope Media, LLC.
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Amateur Astronomers; portable planetarium
Author:O'Meara, Stephen James
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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