150 Boise icons: T.C. Bird Planetarium

awebb@idahostatesman.comJune 13, 2013 

Did you know? Thanks to a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, the planetarium got an upgrade, new seats, carpeting and a console in 1997. The planetarium dome is the original, though, that school kids have been looking up at since 1969. Tom Campbell, pictured here, has directed the planetarium since it opened its doors.


The planetarium at Capital High School presented its first program shortly after it opened in 1969. The Star of Bethlehem program has been an annual tradition since.

That program explores what stars were shining in the sky some 2,000 years ago when the wise men traveled to Jerusalem.

For many school kids across the Valley, field trips to the T.C. Bird Planetarium were, and are, among the best of the year.

"The lights go off, the stars come on. You feel like you're in a different world," said Tom Campbell, director of the planetarium since the year it opened.

The planetarium owes its existence to a couple of things - advocacy from then-Superintendent of Schools T.C. Bird, for whom it's named, and the Apollo space program (1961-1975) that made scientific and astronomical pursuits part of American popular culture.

Half of the money to build the planetarium came from the federal government, which was funding lots of science programs across the U.S. at that time, Campbell said. The other half came from the district after voters approved a bond on its second try.

The planetarium is one of just a very few in Idaho. Capital is one of only three high schools in the Northwest with such a facility.

It's always been open to students from around the Valley, Campbell said. In its heyday a decade or two ago, 30,000 students attended programs there each year. These days, because of budget cuts that make it hard for schools to afford the $35 program fee, plus bus fare, only about 12,000 visit annually.

But those who do make it enjoy programs tailored to their grade level.

Third-graders, the youngest visitors, get an introduction to the night sky - constellations they could walk outside and see that very night - and a lesson about the planets.

On the other end of the spectrum, high school students in AP classes get programs on physics, the theory of relativity, and the relationship between chemicals on earth and their relation to star evolution.

With just 57 seats under its 30-foot dome, the planetarium is an intimate space, which might be part of its appeal. Architects designed it to accomodate just two classes at a time, said Campbell.

When adults who visited the planetarium as kids come back, Campbell hears a common refrain about the planetarium's interior space: "This was much bigger when I was little."

Æ The Star of Bethlehem is the planetarium's only public event, but groups and individuals can schedule programs there at other times. The planetarium is closed for the summer but will reopen in the fall. Call 854-4502 for more information.

8055 Goddard Road

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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