Russia’s Astronomy Icon Nears Rebirth

Reconstruction site
The author and Faina Rubleva, scientific director of the Moscow Planetarium, in front of the empty and deteriorated planetarium building.
Courtesy Robert McCutcheon.
After being closed for nearly 10 years and suffering dilapidation and decay, the historic Moscow Planetarium is finally on the road to restoration and reopening as a major city attraction. On a recent visit I learned that Moscow's Mayor Yuri Luzhkov (the city's answer to New York's Fiorello LaGuardia and Chicago's Richard Daley) has come to the rescue by providing the funds to begin a long-anticipated reconstruction and renovation. There is cause for both hope and concern.

For nearly three-quarters of a century, the Moscow Planetarium acted as a seedbed for Soviet and Russian astronomy both amateur and professional. It opened on November 5, 1929, nearly six years before New York's Hayden Planetarium and scarcely a decade after the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Celebrated in the press and in popular literature, the planetarium boasted a Zeiss projector and an art-deco architecture that quickly made it a city landmark. By the mid-1930s it was Moscow's center for amateur astronomy, serving as the gateway through which many famous Russian astronomers took their first steps. In his memoirs, physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov recalled his teenage visits to the planetarium, and in the 1930s S. P. Korolev, the future father of the Soviet space program, could be found attending meetings there. In the 1950s and 1960s, Yuri Gagarin and other future cosmonauts began their study of the night sky under its dome.

Street scene
Once and future glory. An architect's hopeful sign displays plans for the restored Moscow Planetarium, long a symbol of Russian astronomical dreams.
Photo by Robert McCutcheon.

The facility held onto its status as a leading world planetarium by upgrading to a fourth-generation Carl-Zeiss-Jena projector in the 1970s. Teenage and adult amateur astronomers continued to flock to the planetarium's astronomy clubs through the 1980s, availing themselves of its 5-inch and, more recently, 12-inch refractors.

The fall of the Soviet Union and the transition to a market economy brought hard times. Government support dried up, and the planetarium was privatized in a joint venture operated by the planetarium directors, the Znanie (Knowledge) Society, and the privately owned Twins company. The building deteriorated and then closed in 1994, but with expectations of renovation, new construction, new equipment, and a quick reopening.

The needed funds, however, did not materialize. Work began but quickly stalled due to legal entanglements related to new Russian property laws. The telescopes were put into storage or loaned out, and the astronomy clubs and classes ended. Protests by Moscow's amateur and professional astronomers spilled over into street demonstrations, but the planetarium's doors remained closed for its 70th anniversary in 1999.

Reconstruction site
The planetarium building being prepared for jacking up. It will be raised one story to allow a museum, classrooms, and other rooms to be built beneath it.
Photo by Robert McCutcheon.

Now there are reasons for guarded optimism. When I interviewed her in June, Faina Rubleva, the planetarium's scientific director, reported that the city of Moscow has budgeted $20 million for renovation and reconstruction of the physical structure. This work is now well underway. Most remarkable are plans to raise the planetarium building by 6 meters (20 feet) and place a new museum, classrooms, and other facilities beneath it. The building is on jacks that will begin lifting it 30 centimeters per day starting in September. The landmark tall dome will be preserved as new observatory domes appear and a parking garage — something unneeded in Soviet times — is built.

The Moscow Planetarium is not yet out of the woods, however. An additional $10 million must be raised for a new, state-of-the-art projector and associated equipment. The city government is paying for the physical structure, but it is up to the planetarium directors to pay for the rest. Fundraising efforts are underway, but it is not yet clear whether doors will reopen, as Rubleva hopes, in time for the planetarium's 75th anniversary on November 5, 2004.

Architect's drawing, rear view
The architects' rendition of how the fully restored planetarium will appear.
Courtesy Robert McCutcheon.