With the recent change in astrological signs, the night sky is getting a lot of attention. The John C. Wells Planetarium has its focus to the stars as well, as it launched its new series of spring shows this week.

On Saturday, the planetarium hosted its kick-off event for the new show, "Dawn of the Space Age." About 40 people - students, residents and families - poured into the planetarium to watch the IMAX style show.

The dramatic, animated movie took viewers through the beginnings of space exploration, particularly on the moon, from the first Gemini missions, through the Apollo missions and into the current space exploration age.

The 30-minute video showed both the scientific and the political aspirations involved in space explorations. For example, many of the beginnings of space exploration were due to United States' competition with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The show ended with a look toward the future of space exploration, including commercial space tourism.

"A large portion of the show deals with the excitement of going to the moon," said William Alexander, planetarium manager and professor of physics and astronomy.

To help promote the video showing, the planetarium has samples of rocks and soils collected during the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions. To acquire them, Alexander worked in a NASA program that lends samples of moon rock for public display or classroom use in schools.

Alexander emphasized that it is extremely important to study the moon because it holds geographic clues to the nature of the formation of Earth and the solar system near us. He explained that some current studies show that the moon had once been a part of the Earth, and had broken off due to a massive collision.

"While [these samples] don't look that extraordinary, to me, that is part of the excitement, that the material here on Earth kind of looks like the stuff up there, so it shows how we are linked and related," Alexander said.

New to the planetarium this December, the display also featured a thermal tile that was used on the outside of a space shuttle. Students and children were encouraged to pick up the tile to feel the lightness of weight required for a shuttle.

"I thought that it would be 10 pounds or more, but it felt like styrofoam," said Brooke Mackey, a fifth-grade student at South River Elementary School, who came to the show with her mother.

The event lasted from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and professors Alexander and Shanil Virani were available to discuss the soils and rocks, the video and the planetarium. The planetarium also hosts six interns, who were on hand to answer questions.

About the John C. Wells Planetarium

  • Started by physics teacher John C. Wells in 1950 in the attic of Burruss Hall.
  • Named after Wells in 1980.
  • Now directed by William Alexander and located in Miller Hall.
  • Renovated in 2007 for $1.3 million.
  • Reopened in September 2008 and then rededicated to Wells.
  • Offers a "total-immersion-in-space-experience," available at only three other U.S. planetariums. 
  • Some classes are held there, but Alexander wants to mainly keep it open to the public.
  • Public shows are free of charge on Saturdays during the school year.
  • Call 540-568-2312 or e-mail the director for more information at alexanwr@jmu.edu.

Junior physics major Chris Wolf, an intern who spent most of the show working with children, believes in the importance of bringing kids out and getting them interested in space from a young age.

"You hope they'll continue that same sort of appreciation that you, yourself, have," Wolf said.

The movie, "Dawn of the Space Age," will be playing during the entire spring semester. The moon rock and soil display will be available for viewing again next Saturday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. before it is sent back to NASA.

Contact Beth Cole at cole2ed@dukes.jmu.edu.