During a cross-country train trip this week I had a four-hour layover in Chicago, which turned out to be not nearly enough time for a visit to the famed Adler Planetarium on the Windy City’s waterfront. But I thoroughly enjoyed a quick tour through some of the planetarium’s museum exhibits.
The Adler, which opened in 1930, is one of some 20 organizations around the United States, including Seattle’s Museum of Flight, that are competing to land one of NASA’s retiring space shuttles for permanent display. The Adler already has some cool stuff, including the Gemini 12 capsule and a Moon rock.
Both artifacts are part of the Adler’s “Shoot for the Moon” exhibit, which also includes a great many personal artifacts from former astronaut Jim Lovell’s personal collection. Lovell, who lives in the North Chicago suburb of Lake Forest and owns a restaurant there, is a trustee of the Adler and also serves on the board of the National Air & Space Museum. He flew on Gemini 12 and also on Apollo 8 and Apollo 13.
The Lovell artifacts really make the “Shoot for the Moon” exhibit, which opened in 2006. The exhibit also includes items from the National Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian, NASA, and the film Apollo 13. You can see an Apollo 8 in-flight suit, Apollo 13 helmet and gloves, original flight plans and manuals flown on Gemini 12, the watch Lovell wore on Gemini 12, and the director’s “clapper” used in Apollo 13.
There is plenty more at the Adler, with hands-on exhibits for visitors of all ages. You could get lost playing with Microsoft WorldWide Telescope on their big dozen-screen setup. For low-tech fans they’ve got the Atwood Sphere, which was built in 1913 and is thus Chicago’s “oldest planetarium experience.” There’s also a collection of ancient telescopes and other scientific instruments, which we didn’t have time to see.
Oh, and the planetarium itself: The historic “Sky Theater” is closed for renovation, with plans to re-open in June of 2011. They’re promising some thrilling shows with leading-edge technology. Two other theaters operate at the planetarium.
As for it’s shuttle effort, the Adler’s pitch sounds much like the Museum of Flight’s. The statement issued when they threw their space helmet into the ring: “As the Midwest’s largest metropolitan area, Chicago is uniquely positioned to provide access to the Shuttle for millions of people each year. Many Shuttle program participants (astronauts, engineers, technicians and other team members) hail from the Midwest, and are eager to share their compelling stories to enhance the Orbiter experience at the Adler.”
Adler Planetarium is definitely worth a visit if you’re in Chicago. Don’t do as I did and try to squeeze it into a couple of hours. Plan for a full day, especially after the Sky Theater reopens next summer.