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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Life for Moscow Planetarium

Opened in November 1929, the Moscow Planetarium was once so popular that even the hardships of World War II couldn't close its doors for more than two months.

But in the new Russia, the planetarium, built by the Bolsheviks as a sort of temple of atheism - proving to the masses there was no God or angels - has been swallowed by a black hole of neglect and disrepair.

Current plans for a major $32 million overhaul, however, may eventually bring the planetarium back with a bang by the year 2002, in time for Moscow's 855th anniversary celebrations. According to director Igor Mikitasov, renovations will ultimately transform the world's biggest planetarium-turned-paintball-field - whose crumbling walls are currently covered with paint splatters rather than stars - into an "international astronomy center."

The ambitions of the 31-year-old director, who is not an astronomer, but a journalist who has been involved with show business in the past, don't stop there. Mikitasov says he also wants his pet project to become the "starting point of revivals of planetariums around the country."

Mikitasov has a way to go. So far, the dilapidated, cavernous building with no light or heating - the ideal setting for a debauched Halloween party two and a half years ago - bears little resemblance to the state-of-the-art, multimedia space theater of its director's dreams.

Lost amid tall Stalinist buildings just off the Garden Ring Road near Barrikadnaya metro station, the planetarium will eventually be made more prominent after it is raised 6 meters by a platform built over an underground garage and entertainment complex.

A 3-D light show will also allow viewers to watch the sky, with some 10,000 planets, comets and stars twinkling on its spherical dome. A stereo sound system and films shot from aboard spacecraft or created on computers will further enhance the planetarium's cosmic atmosphere.

For instance, Mikitasov says excitedly, a film about the so-called Tunguska Event - a gigantic explosion in central Siberia in 1908 that some Russian scientists believe was caused by a meteorite - will allow viewers to imagine being lost in a deep forest. A heavy meteorite will whiz over their heads and smash against the ground with a loud stereo bang, and trees on the horizon will burst into flame.

"You'll be able to actually see places where you can only travel in your imagination," the director promises. "Nobody will get bored."

The Moscow Planetarium will face some stiff competition on the international astronomy scene when the Rose Center for Earth and Space opens in New York City on Feb. 19. The $135 million center, part of the American Museum of Natural History, is touted as the most technologically advanced in the world, and will feature a customized Zeiss Star Projector in its Hayden Planetarium.

With a diameter of 26.5 meters, however, the Hayden dome will still fall slightly short of Moscow's Star Hall, which at 27 meters is the world's largest. And Mikitasov says he is planning to purchase a Zeiss projector similar to that in the Rose Center.

The staff of the Moscow Planetarium, which first started experiencing financial setbacks in 1992 and was closed from 1994 to 98, has shrunk from 90 to seven. Mikitasov says he is planning to attract investors using a Moscow government law that transfers revenues from large taxpayers directly to important city projects.

"The Planetarium will never go around begging," says the director, who is hoping his project, once completed, will bring in at least twice the annual $1.3 mi llion in maintenance costs.

Plans also include a museum, a souvenir shop and an arcade of virtual reality games. The Star Hall will accommodate 400 spectators and will include a stage that can do double duty hosting fashion and theater shows. A theme restaurant, Mikitasov adds, will even offer real cosmic food, in tubes.

"We'll make our whole space industry work for us," he says.

Mikitasov shrugs off the original idea behind the 1930s planetarium boom that resulted in the hasty construction of 62 dome-shaped buildings throughout Russia as "atheist propaganda." The director, who last Easter wrapped the building's dome in red cloth to resemble a Faberge egg, says the country has returned to its true values.

"Time puts everything in the right place. We Russians are Christians," he said. "People should know that the world is beautiful and that it was God who created it as it is."