Under the Dome at the USAFA Planetarium

At the USAFA’s planetarium, visitors tour the cosmos and more.

Ask Judy Cara what her favorite film currently playing at the United States Air Force Academy’s planetarium is and her eyes brighten as she smiles and says, “Humpback Whales.”

“It’s hard to describe, but when a whale image fills the entire dome and makes that whale noise … or when one jumps up and smashes back into the water, my console really vibrates,” Cara says. “Humpback Whales was originally an IMAX show that has been rendered to show on the dome. The sound and photography are outstanding.”

The planetarium reopened in March 2019 after a 15-year closure and $5 million renovations. The state-of-the-art result is a center for STEM outreach and exploration of the universe that is open to the public.

Originally built in 1959, the dome was where cadets took celestial navigation classes. “In 2004, it was closed because we no longer taught celestial navigation to the cadets, so it just sat empty for 15 years,” Cara says.

A group of academy leaders and private donors wanted to reopen the property but faced a massive undertaking. Not only had the building deteriorated significantly over the years, but building codes and regulations had changed since 1959. The outside of the building couldn’t be altered due to its historic status, but the inside “was completely gutted,” Cara says.

As the planetarium’s project manager, Cara was responsible for the development and implementation of its science education and public outreach programs. She did everything from introducing the daily shows and organizing special events, to acting as spokesperson and operating and maintaining all of the technical equipment.

In the old days, Cara says, seating was in the round, with a “big ugly projector that came up the middle.” In following the current trend for planetariums, the new layout features reclining seats that all face one direction. The design allows the academy to use the facility not just for shows but for lectures, meeting and events. (Cara adds that though there isn’t a bad seat in the house, the back rows are best.)

The inside of the dome uses NanoSeam technology, an advanced projection system that provides a smooth, uniform surface.

“Some of my planetarium colleagues in other cities are so jealous that we’ve got this,” Cara says with a laugh. “All of the lighting, the sound system, the projectors, it’s all state-of-the-art, brand-new technology.”

Inside the Air Force Academy's planetarium
Photo by Lou Graf, Milo Creative Studios

Previewing and purchasing the films also falls to Cara. One early acquisition was Apollo 11: First Steps Edition, a special giant-screen edition of Todd Douglas Miller’s critically acclaimed documentary, which features never-before-seen 70 mm footage. The film opened at the planetarium on July 20, 2019, the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, with a little extra fanfare. Master Sergeant Julie Bradley, a vocalist with the U.S. Air Force Academy band, sang the national anthem on the planetarium steps at 2:17 p.m., the exact moment the landing occurred.

Special events like this pop up on the schedule, Cara says. From galactic music shows to lunar eclipse viewings and adult astronomy programs with the site’s astronomer, the daily film showings are just a small part of the activities. Ongoing STEM programming for school classes once again inspires dreams in the planetarium as well.

Even Cara has been inspired with a new dream: “Now I want to go and see the whales for myself.” 

Visit the Planetarium

Located at 2304 Cadet Drive, the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Planetarium shares a parking lot with Cadet Chapel and Arnold Hall.

Typically, shows are free and open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis, Monday through Friday. Allow for extra time to get through the North Gate security procedures.

For details: usafa.edu/facilities/planetarium

NOTE: Due to ongoing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, public shows are currently unavailable. School shows and cadet shows are currently available.


This article was originally published in Fall 2019 and updated February 2022.

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