Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Plight of a Planetarium

It is mid-afternoon at the Moscow Planetarium, and the Milky Way spreads its light across the auditorium's parabolic sky. Children stare up at the planets and stars and listen to a lecture - accompanied by synthesized music - about the constellations. Everything is still and quiet in the darkness.

Suddenly a short, bearded man dressed in black stands up and screams, "Repent, the final judgment is near, the world will end on October 24! "

He repeats this mantra until the lecturer shoves him out of the auditorium. The show, nevertheless, continues.

Yet this is but one of the many problems that Oleg Sizukhin, 49, the planetarium director, has to deal with these days. What was once a prestigious place of learning and entertainment has fallen several years behind the times as far as technology and budget are concerned.

The real problem, says Sizukhin, who has been director since 1988, is equipment. The planetarium uses a German star projector acquired in 1975. No such mechanisms are produced in Russia, and a new one from abroad would cost about $1. 5 million. The slide projectors used during shows to superimpose images onto the cosmos - outlines of the constellations, for example - cost between $100, 000 and $200, 000 each. Sizukhin wants to buy several such projectors from Kodak, but the planitarium does not have the money.

"It is a modest dream", Sizukhin says, "but a new system like that would give the planetarium a second wind".

In 1987, the planetarium was on the brink of a joint venture deal with the Canadian firm Omnimax that would have made it one of the most modern in the world. The Omnimax system, now used at the Geode in Paris and the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles employs a sophisticated movie projector that produces moving images on a big round screen. It took a long time to draft the renovation plans and to set up the joint venture, though, and by 1989 the deal had fallen through. Sizukhin now calls the project a "romantic dream".

State funding for the planetarium has nearly disappeared since the Soviet Union dissolved, and now it survives mainly thanks to private Russian sponsors and its own business projects. Sponsorship is a complicated thing, Sizukhin says, because of the tax situation in Russia.

"The government sees any money we get from sponsors as taxable income", he says. As a result, the sponsors contribute in other ways. "I doubt I am revealing a criminal secret in saying that we ask our sponsors to pay our energy bills and help with maintenance costs".

Because of the money squeeze, the planetarium has been forced to rent its space out to various groups for some additional income. Schools for young accountants and businessmen have conducted courses in the auditorium, and seminars have been held there as well. Even with this help, Sizukhin says that the planetarium is approaching bankruptcy.

"The light shows are very expensive", he says, referring to the planetarium's entertaining productions about astronomy. A show called "Flight of the Voyager", which tracks the route of the American space probe Voyager, is currently on view; later this month, there will be a presentation about comets called "Tailed Stars".

"The shows are popular, but ticket sales do not make much of a contribution to our budget", Sizukhin says.

With all the money and other problems of the present, it is understandable that Sizukhin is more enthusiastic about the planetarium's past than its future. He relates its history with relish.

The structure was built in 1929, and at the time it was the biggest planetarium in the world. During World War II, spies were trained here to navigate by the stars. After the war, in an atmosphere of "great secrecy", Soviet cosmonauts, including Yury Gagarin, learned astronomical navigation.

Now the building is an official historic landmark commemorating constructivist architecture. Indeed, it is an odd sight, a single gray cupola rising above the trees along Sadovaya Kudrinskaya. Statues of Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and all the other planetary Roman gods lead from the sidewalk to the planetarium's entrance.

Inside, there is a permanent display of large globes, including the only precise three-dimensional reproduction of Mars in the world. Standing next to it, Sizukhin gives the red, lifeless planet a spin. "Earth will look like this one day", he says, "unless we stop our crazy environmental waste".