UWO-Fox Cities’ laser lights are lit

Bethanie Gengler, News editor

Virtual reality, laser animation, music and a three-dimensional experience minus the 3D glasses are just a few things visitors to the Barlow Planetarium on the UWO-Fox Cities Campus can expect.

Although the UWO-FC campus has had a planetarium since 1961, the Barlow Planetarium was opened in 1998 to replace the former aging planetarium and is the second-largest planetarium in the state.

Barlow Planetarium director Alan Peche said the planetarium has seen nearly three-quarters of a million people in the last 20 years, more than any other university planetarium in Wisconsin.

“We do more business than all of them combined,” he said.  “We’re one of the busiest university planetariums in the Midwest.”

Barlow Planetarium program outreach specialist Ty Westbrook said the planetarium has about 40,000 visitors each year including upward of 200 school children a day who visit for educational programs.

Westbrook has worked at the Barlow Planetarium for 14 years and said he was inspired to work at a planetarium after an experience in his childhood.

“When I was a kid [in] fifth grade, we had a local astronomy planetarium where I grew up and after I went there it blew my mind and I wanted to be able to do that,” he said.

Although Westbrook said the daytime shows at the planetarium are star shows geared toward school kids and those interested in astronomy, on Friday and Saturday nights the planetarium plays rock laser shows geared toward an older crowd.

“We have rock laser shows like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Metallica, U2, Genesis,” Westbrook said.  Other shows include Rush, the Beatles, Queen and Hypnotica.

The lasers completely fill up the planetarium’s dome and are synchronized to music that is enhanced by visuals.

Westbrook described the planetarium’s laser light show as a one-of-a-kind experience.

“It’s moving images and then music and a lot of virtual reality,” he said. “The seats don’t move, nothing moves, but since you’re in the dome it’s 360 degrees, so it’s a virtual reality environment.”

Westbrook said the virtual reality makes you feel like you’re visiting an amusement park.

“We fly through space and we pretend to ride a roller coaster and a scrambler and all these different types of amusement rides, but it’s virtual reality without goggles or anything,” he said.

Peche said in the past the Barlow Planetarium had rented a laser light system each year and could only hold laser light shows from October through January. This year they purchased the system so they will be able to provide laser light shows year round.

“In the beginning of the year we’ll be getting a brand new system that’s an update of the current system.  There’s only a handful of these in the country,” he said.

Westbrook said the planetarium has experienced difficulties in keeping up with changing technology.

“Nowadays all planetarium shows are produced digitally and we don’t have a digital system,” he said. Westbrook said with a digital system, “it’s connected to all these different resources so you can fly out through the galaxy. You can import all these star maps and all these different things that are going on in real time. New discoveries, I can have stuff on the dome in minutes.”

Westbrook said another challenge of not having a digital system is that he is unable to provide new shows to the public.

“We do more shows here than the Communication Arts Center or the March Theatre,” he said. “That’s a lot of people to put here so one of the challenges is to try to get it updated. This being 20 years old and not getting new shows is going to be tough.”

Peche said the planetarium is in the process of determining how to renovate their system, but the cost of the renovations could be in excess of a million dollars.

“We’re working to see what the next version of the Barlow Planetarium will be now that we’re getting our way through this merger with UW Oshkosh,” he said.

Westbrook questioned the planetarium’s place in the UW system in regards to the recent campus merger of UW Oshkosh, UW-Fond du Lac and UW-Fox Valley.

“Just after the dust settled they decided to fold all the two-year schools into the four-year schools, and with all this turmoil we’re what’s considered an auxiliary program so we’re kind of like the bookstore or the cafeteria, except we see 40,000 people a year,” he said. “UW Oshkosh is trying to figure out everything with the merging of the two-year campuses and we’re this other thing and they really don’t know what to do with us yet.”

Despite this uncertainty, Peche said he thinks the merger will be a benefit to the planetarium.

“I think it will allow the Barlow Planetarium to continue in its mission, which will be a little bit easier because now we’re part of a much larger facility,” he said.

Westbrook said with the campus merger, UWO now has two planetariums, referring to the Barlow Planetarium at UWO-FC and the Buckstaff Planetarium at UWO.

However, UWO Director of Facilities Planning & Construction JoAnn Rife said UWO’s Buckstaff Planetarium is permanently closed due to health and safety concerns.

“The spray on materials used [in the] interior of the structure when the facility was originally constructed included some asbestos material,” she said. “That sprayed-on material was beginning to come loose and falling down and through the projection scrim causing a potentially hazardous condition.”

In 2018 there were plans to renovate the Buckstaff Planetarium but those plans were ultimately scrapped. Rife said the current plan is to convert the planetarium into an active learning classroom.

“We are hopeful that the project will go out for bid this fall and construction can begin in late spring,” she said.

With the permanent closing of the Buckstaff Planetarium, Westbrook said it’s even more important that the Barlow Planetarium remains in working order to help maintain the Wisconsin idea.

“The Wisconsin idea is that state university systems should be a resource for the community that it’s in,” he said. “The Barlow Planetarium is 100% community outreach.”

Westbrook said the majority of the people who visit the planetarium are not UW students.

“It’s school kids and the general public so we are the outreach wing of UW Oshkosh now,” he said. “We do more outreach than any other department system right now.”

The Barlow Planetarium holds shows Wednesday through Saturday and the cost ranges from $6-10 for a single feature. In addition to star shows and laser shows, the planetarium also holds astronomy nights and field trips.

Westbrook said the work Barlow Planetarium does is invaluable in educating our youth.

“I see a couple hundred school kids a day and taking them through the universe using astronomy education is my favorite thing,” he said. “I get to get them turned on to science and astronomy.”

Westbrook encouraged the community to take advantage of the resources available throughout the UW System including the Barlow Planetarium.

“Your school kids come to shows here, you get to come learn about astronomy here,” he said.  “This is one of the things that your tax dollars are funding right here in your community so that’s kind of an important thing.”