The 1967 Spitz analog projector which is 50 years old. The Marie Drake Planetarium is fundraising for a new digital projector which will cost $35,000 they are at 10 percent of their fundraising goal. (Erin Laughlin | For the Juneau Empire)

The 1967 Spitz analog projector which is 50 years old. The Marie Drake Planetarium is fundraising for a new digital projector which will cost $35,000 they are at 10 percent of their fundraising goal. (Erin Laughlin | For the Juneau Empire)

Planetarium fundraises for new projector, seeks volunteers

  • By Erin Laughlin
  • Thursday, December 28, 2017 7:03am
  • News

The night after Christmas, Santa was out of Juneau for the evening — way out.

“What do astronauts and Santa have in common?” volunteer Cristina Della Rosa asked the 50 of people inside Marie Drake Planetarium Tuesday night.

“Their special suits!” she answered, getting laughs from the kids and groans from adults in the audience.

The planetarium took a break from serious cosmos discussions for a little holiday-themed humor at a “Christmas in Space” themed event.

Della Rosa, a 57-year-old retiree and longtime planetarium volunteer, led the light-hearted presentation that showed slides of Astronaut Santa and aliens in space. She just so happens to specialize in what she calls astronomy humor, and has even published a book called “Astronomy, Astronaut and Alien Humor.”

One of the funniest moments of the night? Della Rosa asked the crowd whether they thought aliens celebrated Christmas, to which a kid bellowed, “Well, it depends on if they are Jewish or Christian!”

Watching the kids rolling around on the ground, giggling at images of astronaut santas, aliens and astronauts celebrating Christmas was just what she hoped for.

“I was happy about the turnout … and the kids seemed to enjoy it,” she said after the presentation.

The special themed event was a draw for both familiar and new faces. It was 4-year-old Alden Talbot’s first time visiting the planetarium. A preschooler at Montessori Borealis, Talbot just received a toy spaceship for Christmas the night before.

“I want to become an astronaut,” he exclaimed.

Seeing youth get excited about science and space is just one great thing about having a planetarium in Juneau, said longtime Juneau resident Mary Borthwick. Borthwick has been attending presentations at the Marie Drake Planetarium for 49 years, and is an advocate for the institution’s place in the community.

“The planetarium is educational and fun and different than anything else kids can do in town,” she said.

The planetarium hosts free presentations for the community about once a month. The topics are chosen by the volunteers, and vary in subject from celestial navigation to debunking the flat earth theory.

At almost all planetarium shows, the 50-year old earth-centered analog projector is used to display “The Night Sky,” a celestial look of Juneau’s night sky on the dome ceiling displaying how the stars would look if it was clear outside.

Steve Kocsis, a planetarium volunteer of 18 years and University of Alaska Southeast astronomy adjunct, said they are actually trying to upgrade the old projector with a new digital one.

“It works well for showing the night sky but its capabilities are very limited. It can only show (the) view from Earth,” as opposed to more views from Saturn or the moon, for instance, Kocsis said.

A new digital projector will cost approximately $35,000, and the planetarium is currently lightyears away from that goal.

“We have raised somewhere around 10 percent of our goal with online donations through Facebook and our website,” he said.

The planetarium, which is located on Glacier Avenue in the Marie Drake Building between Harborview Elementary School and a playing field, is part of the Juneau School District. The district, however, does not provide staffing or funding for planetarium programming or equipment, according to the Marie Drake Planetarium website.

Della Rosa and Kocsis, both board members of the planetarium, encouraged anyone in the community who is interested to consider volunteering at the planetarium. They could use volunteer help to aid in hands-on programming, children’s programming and fundraising assistance.

For Borthwick, being surrounded by children who still believe in Christmas magic can be similar to the children who wonder about space — yet just a little different.

“With Christmas there is an expectation that something is coming,” she said, “but with space we have to go out there.”

Know &Go

The next Marie Drake Presentation will be Jan. 23 and will discuss gravitational waves. For more information or to donate go to



• Erin Laughlin is a student journalist at the University of Alaska Southeast. She can be reached at



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