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At the Center of a Small World

Mister Rogers, the Space Shuttle Columbia, and Buhl Planetarium

By R.J. Gangewere


Two of the most popular shows at Carnegie Science Center's Henry Buhl Jr. Planetarium and Observatory are The Sky Above Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and On Orbit, a look at the International Space Station and the people who live and work in Earth's orbit.


In February 2003, the death of Pittsburgh's own Fred Rogers, and the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia were headline news around the world. At the Buhl Planetarium, these losses had personal meaning.

A Neighborhood in the Sky

Planetarium Producer Jim Hughes first worked with Fred Rogers at the old Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science in 1986 to produce a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood program for WQED on the subject of Haley's Comet. Only in 2000, when Mister Rogers was free enough to commit to a Planetarium Show, did he and his Family Communications company focus on his new Skyshow, The Sky Above Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.  


Jim notes that "a planetarium show for the pre-school market is a special challenge, and many planetariums don’t allow children under the age of six to enter." Yet, that didn’t stop the Buhl staff from partnering with Family Communications.


Rogers was concerned about the consistency of the message throughout the show and knew from the start the child's point of view that would be necessary to make the show successful. “The conception, script, and performance was pure Fred Rogers,” says Jim. “For example, in planning, he rejected the idea that Daniel the Tiger should be afraid of the dark because children wouldn’t expect that from a tiger.”


Planetarium Director John Radzilowicz remembers how Rogers conceived the scenes and his whimsical approach to his characters, saying, "Oh no, Henrietta would never say that,” or "The King would look at it this way." Buhl Educator Dan Malerbo recalls working with Mr. Rogers fondly. “When Mister Rogers met the Buhl Planetarium's puppet character 'Zeke' [from Zeke's Dazzling Sky], he looked him directly in his puppet eyes and said in his quiet, friendly way, 'You can have the day off today.'"

A Mission to Educate

On Orbit premiered in April 2002 after six months of preparation in close collaboration with NASA. The concept for the On Orbit show is that the audience is training for a mission in space, and the interactive buttons at each seat allow each viewer to make choices and decisions about what to do next. Because On Orbit is so carefully constructed, it lets the viewer experience exactly what the shuttle astronauts see and undergo during their missions, right up to re-entry, which is when the space shuttle Columbia exploded.


To collect the detailed NASA images and information the Buhl staff used to create On Orbit, Radzilowicz notes “Our staff went through reams and reams of video and met and talked with members from most of the previous space shuttle crews. This was the first time we didn’t personally know anyone on board Columbia.”


Buhl Educator Dan Malerbo has taught aerospace subjects to teachers for 12 years, and the weekend after the Columbia disaster he went to Houston to teach a workshop at Johnson Space Center and was struck by how keenly the loss was felt by everyone involved. “The astronaut ‘family’—all the people associated with the space mission, whether they sew the gloves for the space suits or package the in-flight food—are very close,” says Dan. “After the explosion, the conference was nearly cancelled, but in the spirit of discipline and completing the designated educational mission, NASA went on with it. Several NASA officials were so choked with grief they could barely speak, but in the end the program became a kind of healing process.” 

Dealing with Loss

After Mister Rogers’ death, Family Communications Inc. put on its Web site suggestions about how adults should tell children about Mister Rogers’ passing. Buhl staff were asked to address the issue only if parents or children in the audience raised it first, and then to be as gentle and truthful as possible. Most of the children who attend the show probably did not know or were too young to understand Fred's death, and everyone agreed that if children were to be told at all it should be by the adults closest to them. Buhl staff passed along these suggestions to all of the facilities currently running The Sky Above Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.


Concerning the loss of Columbia and the astronauts, Buhl received from NASA no specific guidelines other than an email reminder that Buhl, as an informal NASA representative, should not offer speculation on the crew's final moments or on the ultimate cause of the disaster.


The loss of the seven astronauts and the passing of Mister Rogers both remind us how small the world sometimes seems, and how close Buhl Planetarium and Pittsburgh can be to the center of it.




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