From the outside, the work was hardly noticeable the past few months. But inside this three-story structure at the Arkansas Aerospace Education Center, the result — we’d like to say “completed,” but there’s still some tweaking going on — was breathtaking.
Beginning Friday, May 20, people can get their first look at the center’s $2 million EpiSphere Digital Dome. Two weeks later, on June 3, the center will have an official “grand opening” for its newest addition.
Some might try to label it a planetarium, but it’s much more than that, according to Ken Quimby, the executive director of the Aerospace Education Center. After getting a look Monday afternoon, we believe him.
“It’s like nothing anyone has seen around here,” Quimby said. He says the digital dome is the first installation of its type anywhere.
We watched a trailer of the animated film “Oasis in Space” on the 55-foot dome screen, which hangs suspended inside the 75-feet-by-75-feet building. The show happens all around you. Sound and air conditioning “breathe” through the perforated dome “skin.”
Race car-style seats are angled to give the viewer the full dome experience. The neighboring IMAX has 302 seats and 10,000 watts of sound; the EpiSphere has 150 seats and 20,000 watts of Dolby 5.1 sound.
Quimby hopes to have “Oasis in Space,” created by Spitz, the folks who made most of the EpiSphere equipment, on the EpiSphere’s schedule in June.
The EpiSphere will be able to put the night sky on the dome, its computer allowing any date of any night sky (here, on the moon, on Mars perhaps) to be projected. It will have the capability through its digital processors (they deal in terabytes) to project anything of educational interest: digital animation of the inside of the body, for instance.
If someone wants to rent out the EpiSphere for a private party, he could select an action movie such as “Top Gun” (it would project on a portion of the dome). A corporation or a school class might find it ideal for projecting a PowerPoint demonstration. First images of NASA’s “Deep Impact” comet blasting project will be available on the dome screen in July. The schedule of programs, Quimby said, is much more flexible than IMAX’s films. Together, though, the education opportunities seem endless.
Pam Shireman, who ran UALR’s planetarium (now closed to the public), will be EpiSphere’s program director.
Private financing –- a $1 million gift from Ruth Remmel and a $500,000 grant from the Rockefeller Charitable Trust matched by private donors —funded the EpiSphere.
Here’s a deal that’s hard to refuse. Friday nights are Family Night at the AEC. For $5 per person, you get to see one of the IMAX movies showing, free Coke and popcorn. With the EpiSphere, an additional $4 per person ($9 total) will get you an IMAX movie and a seat for the show in the EpiSphere. Regular admission for the EpiSphere is $5, and it will follow the same hours as the IMAX, which is open every day except Mondays.