What if the Besser Museum Planetarium went digital

Former Alpena resident Matt Linke welcomes the opportunity to return to Sector Zero, Zero, One. In “Star Trek” lingo that roughly means “home.”

It is fitting that Linke would employ such a phrase. Ever since the day he and his fellow third grade classmates at Immanuel Lutheran School stepped foot inside the Besser Museum’s Sky Theater Planetarium, he’s been enthralled with the stars.

“Even though the seats are new now, I can still tell you exactly where I sat that day,” Linke said. “And the room smells the same. I don’t remember who ran the show, but I remember pretending that it was my control console, and that I was the one making it all happen. The lights went down and I started on a journey that, little did I know, would still be going over 40 years later.”

Twelve years after that fateful day, the 1976 Alpena High School graduate found himself behind the real console in the Sky Theater, and he was the one making it all happen. A graduate of Alpena Community College, Central Michigan University and Eastern Michigan University, he trained under former Besser Museum administrator Gene Jenneman, and eventually was appointed the museum’s planetarium coordinator.

“The planetarium kept me busy since I was a one-person show,” Linke said. “It meant working every Sunday. I redesigned the school shows and was rewarded with an immediate increase in school attendance sometimes numbering up to nine shows a day. What was I thinking? I soon realized that I really liked being paid to be in the dark.”

Ultimately, Linke and his wife relocated to Ann Arbor where in 1989, he became the planetarium coordinator at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History Planetarium in Ann Arbor, a position he still holds. As such, he oversees the daily operations of the planetarium, works with student employees, conducts workshops and produces public and school planetarium programs. He also makes between 40 and 100 traveling presentations a year to help peak student interest in science and related careers.

Come this Friday and Saturday, Linke will find himself back behind the controls at the Sky Theater Planetarium. His return home is two-fold. First, it’s a chance to show Besser Museum officials what is possible should they decide to upgrade the facility’s nearly 50-year-old equipment. Second, it’s a chance for Linke to test out the latest digital equipment first-hand for possible purchase at his own facility in Ann Arbor.

“Our planetarium has the original Spitz instrument. It’s one of those things that was acquired when the museum was built in 1966,” said Director Chris Witulski of the Besser Museum’s antiquated system. “The equipment has not been updated since then.”

She recently contacted Linke to see what recommendations he might have for upgrading the planetarium, and coincidentally, he was in the process of looking at new digital equipment for his facility. Linke offered to try the equipment out in Alpena, and will be bringing Ken Yager of Elumenati with him to demonstrate what is called a GeoDome Evolver with Uniview software.

“I wanted to see some of the new projection equipment that our current provider, the Elumenati, is working on,” Linke said. “The Alpena dome is currently bigger than mine, and I want to see their newer stuff in a bigger dome. I saw it as a chance to show the museum what digital can do.”

He’s enthused about the possibilities of the digital unit, especially for teaching.

“The entire known universe exists in the computer, and the graphics ability can render it to the dome in real time,” Linke said. “You can’t visit everything, but you can travel from the surface of the earth to the edge of the known universe. Visualizations are stunning and the ability to teach goes through the roof.”

Though he declined to quote a price for such a system, Linke said it is not as expensive as many people think and is quite comparable to replacing the current equipment at the Besser Museum.

It was important to Linke to test out the equipment on a group of young students, and his suggestion naturally was to invite youngsters from his old alma mater, Immanuel Lutheran School. The kids will arrive at the museum on Friday for a 9:30 a.m. demonstration in the planetarium.

“Finding ways to excite and inspire them is a large part of what I do,” Linke said. “I welcome the opportunity to return to Sector Zero, Zero, One (Star Trek language, roughly meaning ‘home’) and show them and the community what is possible. That museum and its planetarium inspired me.”

He also said he believes the museum needs to be made more current and relevant so that it can continue to inspire more people.

“I would like to show kids, parents, teachers, board members and those in the community who could make this happen at the museum what this technology can do for them,” he said.

Linke also will give a 2 p.m. presentation on Friday to select area educators from Alpena Community College and Alpena Public Schools, as well as representatives of several other interested groups.

The public can get in the on excitement too with presentations at 6 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday. Cost for these public programs is $3 for adults and $2 for seniors/children.