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A rising star in Chemeketa’s planetarium

By Joshua Wood

A long time ago, in a planetarium not so far away …

… a young graduate student with a mustache became director.

Tom McDonough was his name. The year was 1977.

While Luke Skywalker and Han Solo were blasting through the planetary nebula on the big screen in Star Wars, McDonough was projecting an accurate representation of the solar system on the domed screen in Chemeketa’s Bldg. 2.

“I absolutely loved it,” McDonough says in recalling the first time he saw Star Wars. “It raised our attention and our imagination, and I think we are all different because of those types of films.”

For the next 38 years, McDonough helped to raise both attention and imagination about the universe in his planetarium.

How great a debt do Chemeketa students owe McDonough?

Michael Milhausen, the dean of math and science at Chemeketa, says, “I don’t think the planetarium would be here without Tom’s support for it and his participation in keeping it going.”

Still, nothing lasts forever. In the spring of 2014, McDonough went into semi-retirement.

He continues to work as a part-time instructor, however, and currently is engaged in passing on his wealth of knowledge to the new generation.

Instructor Chris Claysmith is the new member of Chemeketa’s outreach to the stars.

McDonough says, “I don’t know exactly the twists and the turns, but [Claysmith] is going to need my support for a while.”

As the sun sets on McDonough’s career, its light illuminates a myriad of career accomplishments. Among them:

  • He has run the planetarium since its doors opened, a total of 38 years;
  • He had a dual career as a part-time ranger at Crater Lake:
  • He also worked briefly for the weather service;
  • He ran planetarium shows in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park; and
  • He was a main proponent for renovating Chemeketa’s planetarium.

Meanwhile, the rising sun reveals a number of goals and ideas for Claysmith’s planetarium career. What’s in store:

  • Showing the night sky from different perspectives, i.e. Mars’ night sky;
  • Music with star gazing;
  • Doing shows focused on other science disciplines, such as geology; and
  • Doing justice to the legacy that he is inheriting.
  • Both Claysmith and McDonough are Oregon State alumni. Claysmith studied physics there before moving to Boston University to get his master’s degree in astronomy in 2011.

    Something else that runs through the lives of both men is their love of the Star Wars franchise.

    “I’m a huge Star Wars fan,” Claysmith says. “The original 1977 film and its follow-ups are three of my favorite films of all time.

    “I first saw Star Wars when I was maybe 6 or 7, and it blew my mind. Spaceships, aliens, distant worlds and technology completely unlike anything I had ever seen definitely put me on a track of being interested in science and finding out how much of this stuff was real or could become real.”

    Claysmith began his Chemeketa career in 2012 as a part-time instructor and joined the faculty full-time in September of 2014.

    “It was my dream job that opened up just as I was starting to wonder, ‘What am I going to do with myself?’ ” he says.

    Claysmith’s respect for McDonough and the college’s planetarium is not newly acquired, he says. McDonough helped him to choose his career, after all.

    “One of the reasons I got into astronomy was because I went to a planetarium show when I was young that Tom actually did. So it’s really fun to get to work with him,” he says.

    Working with McDonough, a pairing of the old and the new, is an interesting concept, Claysmith says.

    “For me, it’s a lot like walking into Dr. Frankenstein’s lab. Everything’s digital. The old planetarium is very analog, so it’s all dip switches. It feels almost like playing piano rather than just like clicking and typing on a more modern system.”

    While Claysmith did major in astronomy, he says he is a novice when it comes to running a planetarium.

    “I’ve been doing astronomy for many years. I’ve been to planetariums, but I’ve never worked one before,” he says.

    Conversely, when McDonough came to Chemeketa in the 1970s, he had majored in meteorology instead of astronomy. But he says he had taken enough astronomy courses and had done planetarium shows in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and was able to successfully fill the role.

    Claysmith now teaches both astronomy and physics at Chemeketa.

    A diversity of interests also reflects what McDonough says about his own science interests since boyhood.

    “My interest from my earliest days was not just astronomy or geology or physics or chemistry,” he says. “I liked the interrelationships between them all. When we go outside, all of those subjects are interwoven.”

    At the same time that the planetarium is changing starship captains, it also is getting blasted into the 21st century.

    “Up until recently, we were still using slide projectors and tape recorders,” McDonough says. “It’s just now that we’re beginning to convert over to systems that are contemporary.”

    Claysmith says, “We’re working to put in projectors that cover more of the dome, which creates more of an IMAX experience. Instead of having the planetarium as this object that projects points of light onto the dome, we’ll be able to do video … where it kind of turns the entire thing into one PowerPoint projector.”

    This will greatly enlarge the possibilities for viewing.

    “One of the big ones is here’s the Night Sky, but let’s try to go to other objects. Let’s go to Mars and what would the sky look like from there,” he says.

    McDonough says the new projector will be paired with the original one.

    “We’re still going to use the machine because even with the digital sky, it’s not as good. They can’t get the images … focused enough to be a star. So our machine is still superior,” he says.

    Milhausen says the upgrades will broaden the use of the planetarium from astronomy to include the other science disciplines as well.

    “It’s possible that we would be able to purchase video that would be able to be used with other science classes, not just with astronomy classes,” he says.

    The possibilities are extensive.

    Milhausen says, “I could imagine someone putting together a really great show showing how a molecule is structured – maybe how a red blood cell runs through our bodies.”

    McDonough says the first shows using the new equipment will begin in the spring.

    Dean Kelly, who took classes from McDonough in 1979 and now runs the Friday night public shows for the college, says, “Were going to be doing a show called Two Small Pieces of Glass with the full dome projector. It’s about the invention of telescopes, how they work, what you can see with them. It’s a good show.”

    The grand opening of the renovated planetarium will begin in the fall term of 2015.

    Claysmith says, “We want to make sure we know what works and what doesn’t before we start saying we’ve got all this great stuff.”

    While transitioning to the new equipment may have its bumps, Milhausen is confident that the transition of leadership will be seamless.

    “We’re really excited about Chris,” he says. “He is clearly dynamic. He was hired because of his skills and his excitement and dedication about astronomy and physics.”

    Claysmith says he looks forward to his new role, and especially to using the new equipment.

    “I think we’re going to be able to do some really cool things with it and make it a hallmark of the college,” he says.

    But Claysmith is keeping a vigilant eye on the past.

    “It’s a big responsibility because it’s been his planetarium for so long,” he says of McDonough. “I want to do right by it. I want to see it continue to be this really cool feature that Chemeketa has that not a lot of other places have.”

    The planetarium’s spring shows begin at 7:30 each Friday.

    The planetarium is in Bldg. 2-171. Shows are $5. Children and students are $4.

    Planetarium shows will resume fall term. More information is available by calling 503-399-5246.

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