Hardin planetarium celebrates its 50th year

Elisabeth Moore

The Hardin Planetarium will be celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Originally opened in 1967, the Hardin Planetarium still contains the original structure and sound system included when it originally opened. It has since upgraded to a new projector, though the original is still located in the planetarium.

The Hardin Planetarium was named after WKU  President Kelly Thompson’s son, Hardin Cherry Thompson. There is currently only one full-time staff member, Ronn Kistler, and multiple student helpers and interns.

Before Kistler began his career at the planetarium, he graduated from college with a degree in biology. Throughout college, Kistler performed as an actor, which led him to his first job in a performing arts foundation in his home town of New YorkCity.

Failing to get a job in any biology labs, Kistler went to work for a high school English teacher in a performing arts foundation, which lasted for five years. With thoughts of being a Broadway actor, Kistler got involved in many different areas of the theater, including an area called arts in education.

After five years, Kistler broke away from that foundation and created his own company with a few of his colleagues. The original foundation Kistler was involved in focused on performing in schools, though Kistler’s new company was interested in branching out while using arts in education.

“The whole idea of using the arts to help teach other subjects has, in time, become a big initiative in differentiating education,” Kistler said. “We were interested in using theater for other venues.”

When Kistler moved to Kentucky, the arts in education movement was not as advanced as it was in New York, so he decided to further his teaching degree. Kistler was aiming to teach public school, which led him to take an astronomy in education class led by Richard Gelderman, professor of physics and astronomy  and director  of the Hardin Planetarium. During this class, Gelderman asked students to create a planetarium show, where Kistler thrived due to his previous theatrical experience.

Due to the retirement of previous director Roger Scott, Gelderman became the new planetarium director and asked campus administration to create a full-time position at the Hardin Planetarium. With his previous class experience with Kistler, Gelderman advised Kistler to apply for the job.

“I love my job with the planetarium, but I can’t dedicate my time with the planetarium like Rodger Scott did,” Gelderman said. “There were a number of great applicants, but Ronn stood out because of his performing arts experience and the way it complimented my astronomy experience.”

Starting in fall  2011, Kistler and Gelderman realized  they would need a new system for the planetarium since the old system was from 1967, when the planetarium opened. The planetarium managed to get a new system for $50,000, which was installed toward the end of 2011.

Currently, Gelderman directs and produces each planetarium show, and Kistler acts out each show during its running time.

“I love to create the shows and to work out the kinks during dress rehersal and to get the show going the first time,” Gelderman said. “I love creating the content and developing the story and finding a story that gets across the lesson,  so it isn’t just a lecture in a round building, and Ronn is great working with that.”

According to Kistler, part of the goal of the planetarium is to inform visitors about the different information that science provides and to engage them into continuing their research and knowledge of science and astronomy.

Kistler said  one of his favorite commodities at the planetarium is theamount of interactive activities involved throughout the planetarium. Outside of the projection room, there are multiple interactive exhibits like a black hole simulator and a thermal camera. There are also shows that allow the audience members to speak up and interact with Kistler as he performs the show.

“We really started to make a push towards this shortly before I came here,” Kistler said. “Dr. Gelderman had taken over the direction of the planetarium at that point, and he brought me on as a coordinator and ever since, we have been adding a little bit more to the planetarium, which had been in a decent state for at least 12 years,  and some of the exhibits had been here since 1980.”

The goal for Kistler is to update every exhibit in the planetarium and to have some form of interactive feature on the exhibits themselves. This would hopefully bring in the community more, said Kistler.

Reporter Elisabeth Moore can be reached at 270-745-6288 and [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @emoore938.