Griffith Observatory Goes to the Moon

Griffith Observatory
Goes to the Moon

When the Griffith Observatory's planetarium projector wasn't
passing for an otherworldly thing bent on terrorizing innocent
Earthlings, it was a uniquely forward-looking space ship that
took visitors on one-hour planetarium trips to the moon. The
trips began in Summer1948 ... more than 20 years before the
actual moon landing.

Photo: USC Regional History Center

Note: This article appeared in the Glendale News-Press on July 20, 1994 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the first manned moon landing.

It was 1:16 p.m., Pacific Standard Time, 25 years ago today. The Eagle had landed. Men were on the moon. And at 7:56 p.m. local time, Neil Armstrong of Wapakoneta, Ohio took his giant leap for humankind.

America's trip to the Moon was fueled by spectacular technical achievements. But as the above examples show, it was a human moment as much as a technological one. People around the Southland began to think about travelling to the moon long before the first Soviet Sputnik in 1957 jolted the nation into joining the space race. And no place was the idea of travelling to the Moon presented with more gusto than at the Griffith Observatory.

Conceived by Col. Griffith J. Griffith as a place where the average person could experience the vastness of space, the Observatory's 12-inch refracting rooftop telescope had been showing off the moon, among other things interstellar, ever since the building opened to the public on May 15, 1935.

Not that people were always impressed with what they saw, mind you. Matt Weinstock, who prowled the city as a columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News, came up with this 1947 item from a woman who had just viewed the Moon through the Observatory's telescope: "Why, it looks like an old, worn-out golf ball."

But soon the Observatory would make the moon an exciting--and heavily-travelled--place.

Trip to the Moon

It was summer 1948. People were becomming accustomed to a strange new material called plastic and a fascinating new medium called television. And the Griffith Observatory was taking people on planetarium trips to the Moon.

According to one 1948 report, Observatory Director Dr. Dinsmore Alter "alerted Southern California and tourists to the imminence of space travel and the forthcoming age of rocket-propelled craft," with his brand-new planetarium show, entitled 'A Trip to the Moon.'"

Dr. Alter followed this show with "bigger and better" versions of the trip in the summers of 1949, 1950 and 1951. "We Land on the Moon" was the featured attraction in 1952 and "Space Station to the Moon" appeared in 1953. After taking "A Trip to Mars" in 1954, Alter returned to the moon in 1955, this time taking planetarium audiences there in a simulated rocket ship.

These planetarium "trips" used projection techniques that were pioneered at the Griffith Observatory. Observatory staffers, for example, designed a way for wide-angle zoom projectors to nearly fill the planetarium dome with the image of the moon. This way, people in the planetarium could see the moon growing ever closer, just as they would on board a real space ship.

By 1963, American and Soviet astronauts were orbiting the Earth. The planetarium moon trips had become familiar to Southland audiences, yet they were captivating as ever. Remarked one planetarium astronaut:

A hush fell over the crowd as the countdown grew shorter--'Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . Blast Off.' The dazzling brilliance of flashing lights illuminated the darkness. Suddenly the stillness was broken by the monsterous roar of rocket engines, which increased in volume until it reached a thundering crescendo, then slowly faded into silence once again. Ended at last was that interminable period of waiting; of excited speculation as we anticipated the journey which lay ahead of us. We were on our way. We were traveling to the moon.

Space Age Made Things Harder

Paul Roques, who led hundreds of planetarium trips at the Observatory, remembers that the real-life moon missions--manned and unmanned--had the Observatory staff constantly updating the shows. For example, slides depicting a wickedly rugged lunar landscape full of jagged peaks had to be redone as photos from the moon made the the planetarium's backdrop obsolete overnight. And by 1969 planetarium's lunar rover--a fanciful pod-like vehicle--likewise went into the shop for an overhaul since it didn't look anything like the rover the world was watching on television screens.

Rocks and Dust

After the Apollo moon missions, the Observatory was able to share some of the lunar booty with the public. In 1970 crowds gathered in the Observatory's Hall of Science to see moon dust. This engagement almost ended in disaster after someone pilfered 2.3 grams of the stuff. Order was restored to the universe when someone--if was never determined whom--returned the dust to a mailbox at a nearby police station.

But the dust was just a warm-up act. In 1971 the Observatory got to show off moon rocks.

Perhaps with the moon dust fiasco in mind, these were perhaps the most-guarded rock stars to play Los Angeles since the Beatles. NASA insisted that they (the rocks, not the Beatles) be locked in a vault each night. Armed guards watched over the rocks while they were on display. And the rocks were never to be left in a room--even a deadbolted, windowless room--unattended. Roques recalled that quite a few times his job came down to rock-sitting.

Not infrequently I would stare at it with mixed thoughts . . . not a very attractive rascal, really not much different than the dry stuff off my boots . . . could it be that we are stuck with a low-quality moon out there?

Writer's note: This article, one of an occasional series, is part of the Griffith Park History Project, an attempt to chronicle the park's long and remarkable life.

What memories do you have of Griffith Park? Suggestions? Questions? Criticisms?

Please call me at Glendale College 240-1000, Ext. 5352 (I have voice mail, so you can leave a message at any time.)

Write to me, Mike Eberts, Griffith Park History Project, Glendale Community College, 1500 N. Verdugo Road, Glendale, CA 91208.

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