A Day Away: Waterloo Planetarium is out of this world

WATERLOO – Tucked away in a far corner of the Grout Museum is a plain wooden door with a simple sign: Norris Corson Family Planetarium.

But this simple door opens to an extraordinary experience. Settle into one of 30 new theater-style seats that recline just enough to admire the silver-white dome above your head. And then brace yourself for a magical ride through the cosmos.

As viewers begin their journey through our solar system, they are treated to this view of Earth and the Milky Way, projected onto the dome of the Norris Corson Family Planetarium inside the Grout Museum in Waterloo. (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)

Your body won’t budge, but your mind will be blown away as your galactic guide shows you where this revamped facility can take you. Be prepared to be ahhhed.

I may have said “wow” out loud a few times, but I was the only person who bought a ticket for the Wednesday matinee last week. My guide, John Nicol, 25, of West Union, assured me that “oohs”, “aahs” and “wows” are common occurrences, whether one or a room full of 30 viewers are in attendance for 30 to 45 minutes. ride through the starry sky.

The visit takes a little longer when the room is full of students who are taking more of a science lesson — and becoming more vocal, Nicol said.

If you are going to

What: Norris Corson Family Planetarium

Or: Inside the Grout Museum of History & Science, 503 South St., Waterloo

Car park: Disabled parking lot behind the museum, general parking lot under Route 218

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; mandatory masks

Admission: Museum: $12 adults, $6 veterans, college students and children 4 to 13 years old, free 3 years old and under; museum admission must also be purchased to visit the planetarium.

Details: groutmuseumdistrict.org/


The planetarium, built in the 1950s, reopened in December after a year-long closure and more than $206,000 in renovations that stripped the space down to bare walls before rebuilding it anew.

“Essentially everything but the dome has been removed,” said Carrsan Morrissey, director of programming and outreach for the Grout Museum District, via email.

The white dome has been repainted in “a silver color like a movie screen,” Morrissey noted. The walls were painted, new carpeting was laid and a new projection system was installed by Bowen Technovation.

“This new system can do so much,” Morrissey said. “It runs on an extremely powerful computer that not only allows us to show stars, but also planets, moons and even galaxies. It really is amazing technology.”

It replaces the “Star Ball” or “Star Projector” system, “a metal sphere with very precisely placed holes and a very bright bulb inside that projects the stars onto the ceiling,” Morrissey said.

“We went through a few until, over the past two years, our star ball finally fell apart. From then on we were using a very generously donated star projector which worked well, but couldn’t do much more than just show the stars.

Fundraising was launched before COVID-19 hit, and the ensuing pandemic pause had an upside.

“Although it was obviously an extremely unfortunate and stressful situation at the time, it gave us plenty of time to focus on the project,” Morrissey said. “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 comfortable seat.

“We have 61 customizable and individually programmable lights that create any light the human eye is able to see,” Nicol said, “and so we can create beautiful effects like this kind of rainbow effect. sky. We can do some cool things like the Grout logo colors all around – our green, red, blue and yellow behind you. Or the one I did relatively recently (which) took a little while – a kind of a little circus tent feel – so if we were doing some kind of animal show or something, we could have that when people walked into the planetarium.

“But of course that’s not the most interesting part of the planetarium. We want to look at the sky.

New views

Visitors today can see the Earth’s horizon, the moon, and stars here and there, all thanks to the lively narration of staff members like Nicol. Right from the start, I knew my star guide had studied acting in college. It was so lively and lively, accentuating the fun in the fundamentals of what was happening overhead.

I don’t want to reveal all the revelations, but I didn’t know that Uranus had Saturn-like rings, and that many moons around the seventh planet from the Sun are named after Shakespearean characters.

As beautiful as pinpoint stars and galaxy washes are, when star clusters are transformed into constellations and then filled in to illustrate their names, it’s truly breathtaking.

Nicol also revealed the fascinating folklore behind some of the constellation names.

“The Big Dipper is an incredibly interesting constellation because there were two ancient civilizations who both looked up at the sky, saw this shape and said, ‘Well, yeah, that’s where there is a very big bear.’ And those two civilizations were the ancient Greeks and the Native Americans…. They are separated by a whole ocean and have no way of communicating with each other, but when they look up at the sky, they see the same thing. However, they have stories very different as to how it happened.

Stemming from Nicol’s research, the Greek tale involves gods, revenge, and a bear thrown into the sky. The Native American story centers on a bear that steals food at night and hides by day, and the three hunters who follow it to the edge of the Earth, where the bear leaps into the sky. As they dare not return home empty-handed, they follow the bear into the sky, where they continue their quest.

Field trip students aren’t the only ones who come away knowing much more than when they entered the room. Tour guides tell plenty of facts across time and space, making for an unforgettable trip just 55 miles northwest of Cedar Rapids and 82 miles northwest of Iowa City, both via I-380 and Highway 218.

Museum Quarter

The planetarium is just the tip of the Grout Museum’s attractions. But be aware that the museum closes at 4 p.m., so get there early in the day to wander around the exhibits and temporary exhibits in these other parts of the Grout Museum Quarter:

Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum, 503 South St.: The focus is on the US military in war and peace, from the civil war to Iraq and Afghanistan. You’ll see a tank, part of a helicopter, and interactive exhibits with narration as well as veteran voices of experience. You’ll also learn about the five Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, who died when the USS Juneau was torpedoed in November 1942, during the Battle of Guadalcanal in World War II.

Grout Museum of History & Science, 503 South St.: Adjoining the Veterans Museum, this adjoining facility features permanent and changing exhibits depicting the early days of Waterloo, from a log cabin and general store to artifacts from the factories that shaped the city. And of course, that’s where you’ll find the planetarium.

Bluedorn Science Imaginarium, 322 Washington St.: A three-story interactive science center offers more than 60 interactive exhibits on how science fits into everyday life – specifically light and electricity, momentum, liquids, gases and sound. Open from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. from Tuesday to Saturday; admission, $6, free for 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 personal effects from a century of life for the Russell family, 1861-1963. Open by appointment; admission: $6, free for ages 3 and under.

Snowden House, 306 Washington Street: This 1881 Italianate Victorian house is available for rental only. Details: (319) 234-6357.

Comments: (319) 368-8508; [email protected]

Shades of gray dominate the interior of the Norris Corson family planetarium inside the Grout Museum in Waterloo. Once the lights are turned off, a kaleidoscope of color bursts overhead as visitors spend 30 minutes traveling through our solar system, the Milky Way, constellations and galaxies far, far away. (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)

When you see this sleek exterior of the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum along Washington Street in downtown Waterloo, you’ve come to the right place for the Norris Corson Family Planetarium inside. Disabled parking is available behind the building, while other vehicles can park on a lot in front of this entrance. (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)

The planetarium projection system not only outlines the different constellations, but can also fill them in, to make their shapes even more obvious. (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)

Many of the moons orbiting Uranus are named after Shakespearean characters, including Ophelia, Juliet, Puck, Miranda, Caliban, and Ariel. (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)

This planetarium projection shows the rings around Saturn, which are only visible with a telescope. (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)

John Nicol, museum assistant, Planetarium guide

Arline J. Mercier