If the inspiration for "Universe Knoxville" really is the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City, it will have a lot to live up to.
The Rose Center opened just over a year ago at the American Museum of Natural History, on the upper west side border of Central Park. The giant glass cube, encasing an almost equally large sphere, is 120 feet high with 333,500 square feet of exhibition, research and education space. It took six years and $210 million to complete. It's named for Frederick and Sandra Rose, major museum benefactors.
The circle-in-a-square design, which architect James Stewart Polshek calls a "cosmic cathedral," won numerous awards and has been widely hailed as the city's most striking new building in years.
The largest component of the center is the Hayden Sphere, a four-million-pound planetarium with an 87-foot diameter. The upper half of it houses the Space Theater, which offers digitally enhanced three-dimensional voyages through solar systems and galaxies. The first program on its schedule, "Passport to the Universe," was narrated by Tom Hanks. Snazzy as it is, it's rooted in up-to-date science, with the model universe based as closely as possible on data from NASA and the Hubble space telescope.
The lower half of the sphere is home to something called the Big Bang, a laser-driven recreation of "the first moments of the cosmos," narrated by Jodie Foster. (How such a simulation would play in the Bible Belt remains to be seen. Maybe they could get Charlton Heston to do the voice-over.)
Other exhibits include a Hall of the Universe, which traces the chain of physical and theoretical discoveries that underpin modern astronomy; a Black Hole Theater, which simulates the space warping near a black hole; and the Willamette Meteorite, a 15-ton chunk of rock that fell out of the asteroid belt. There's also the Scales of the Universe, a walkway that uses scale models to remind you exactly how insignificant you are in the vastness of space.
The Rose Center has its own Department of Astrophysics, a full-fledged research center that collaborates with faculty at Princeton, Columbia and other universities. Those connected with the Knoxville proposals haven't mentioned any such element, and the University of Tennessee astronomy department says it hasn't heard anything either.
But Paul Lewis, UT's director of astronomy outreach and a member of the Southeastern Planetarium Association, says he likes the idea. "There is nothing like the Rose Center anywhere right now," he says. "I'd love to see Knoxville have the premier facility in the Southeast." Currently, the only full-sized planetarium available to local students is in Kingsport, with smaller ones at the Discovery Center in Chilhowee Park and Heritage High School in Blount County.
But Lewis says a successful high-tech facility would take careful planning and commitment. "One of the problems with planetariums these days is being able to keep up with the state of the art, because it is so very expensive to do," he says.
"I'd really love to see it," he concludes. "But I'd only love to see it if Knoxville's willing to spend the money and do it right. I'd hate to see us nickel and dime it and the whole thing fall apart like so many other things."