URI planetarium faces financial, accessibility issues

Tucked behind the Kirk Center for Advanced Technology along Upper College Road, the world’s second-smallest planetarium lies dormant.

Typically used by astronomy classes prior to the pandemic, it has been unused since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

“It’s a great place,” physics professor Douglas Gobeille, who teaches astronomy courses and was in charge of the building, said. “It’s got great history; it’s built using the top of one of the old grain silos from the farms on campus. It was always fun.”

Gobeille explained that the planetarium is no longer compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because there are steps that you have to walk up in order to get to the part of the building where you can view the presentations. Additionally, the projector itself is over 30 years old.

“We had jerry-rigged that thing 16 ways to Sunday and if this last connection failed, there was nothing else we could do to keep it going,” Gobeille said. 

Renovating the building in order to meet ADA standards and upgrading all the equipment would cost up to $750,000, by Gobeille’s estimates. The ADA upgrades alone would cost roughly $100,000. 

“When the situation with the ADA compliance came in, it was kind of [like] ‘why are we gonna spend 100,000 some-odd dollars to make a building compliant that could legitimately stop working tomorrow?’” he said.

For everything that needs to be done, he said that it would cost, at minimum, between $250,000 and $300,000.

With these challenges at play, finding the funding to renovate has been difficult, especially considering other plans the University has that need money. Recent inflation has also made everything much more expensive which decreases the chances that it will be fixed any time soon, according to Gobeille.

Tommy Muth, a doctoral candidate in physics and 2018 graduate in math and physics, spent time in the planetarium as an undergraduate when he took one of Gobeille’s classes.

“His class blew, like literally opened, my mind to new horizons about my understanding of the universe in our own little rock that’s moving through space,” he said. “With the projector it feels like you’re in a ship and you’re flying through space. It was very mind-blowing because it feels like an out-of-body experience.”

In addition to the University classes that would be held there, there was also a lot of public engagement with the planetarium.

“It was great to have other classes in there, but especially when we did [events for] Girl Scouts and all kinds of K-12 events,” Gobeille said. “We did stuff for the Kingston Free Library, we did things for Newport, like a reading club, it was all over the place.”

He talked about what is commonly referred to as the “leaky pipe problem,” in which students in STEM — particularly female students — “leak out of the system” and wind up in other fields. Gobeille explained that engaging with students in the way that the planetarium could is crucial in reducing that problem.

“I don’t like the fact that a lot of people lose their sense of wonder in so many ways,” he said. “The planetarium is a good mechanism towards [reducing] that, and again, this is one of so many things we can do with that. It helps us breathe life into other classes, gives us a place to show you in a very visceral manner what the night sky might have been like on this night and that day.”

Muth agreed that the planetarium was a good resource for the community to take their first steps into learning about the solar system. 

“With the solar observations that we [had], we allow[ed] anyone who’s interested, who’s curious, to come and take a look and be interested,” he said, “and this is what the whole point of higher education should be about – being interested in something new, or something that you want to be familiar with.”

While the process of securing funding and completing the renovations on the planetarium will likely take several years, Gobeille remains hopeful that one day in the future its doors will open once again.

“It’s not like it’s dead or done,” Gobeille said. “I don’t intend to stop fighting this fight, but I acknowledge it’s probably not going to move significantly for several years.”