Director: In-person programs scheduled for June 12 at Robeson Planetarium and Science Center

May 29—LUMBERTON — The Robeson Planetarium and Science Center is set to reopen to the public with a brand-new program and location.

On June 12, the planetarium will offer at least two public programs at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., featuring the Mars rovers Perseverance, Curiosity and China's Zhurong.

What will set these programs apart is that they will be held in-person at the newly renovated location, in what was once the cafeteria of the former Janie C. Hargrave Elementary School. The former school, located at 100 Hargrave St., also houses the Public Schools of Robeson County Central Office.

"The Public Schools of Robeson County is very excited to announce the reopening of our planetarium to students throughout the district," said Gordon Burnette, PSRC chief Communications officer.

The new location was chosen to align with the original planetarium's proximity to PSRC's central office on Caton Road, Burnette said.

The original office and planetarium were flooded during Hurricane Matthew, destroying the facilities. In 2017, the planetarium found a new home at the Partnership for Children on Chestnut Street in Lumberton before moving to Janie C. Hargrave in 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

"A new location for the planetarium will possibly be discussed in the future, if a suitable location within the county can be found," Burnette said.

Brandt said he is "really appreciative" of the administrative support from PSRC in finding a new home for the planetarium.

"The administration really done the best they could," Brandt said. "This could have made about 15 offices, but instead they made a place where I could do stuff for kids, so that's really good."

The school system has collaborated with Brandt to determine the safest way to reopen to the public.

"We've talked about safety stuff and I've been collecting different articles from museums and science centers and institutions around the world about how they're reopening safely, and we are some of the first portable domes or inflatable domes to reopen," Brandt said.

Throughout the pandemic, the planetarium has offered virtual programs, which have shown to be a success, Brandt said.

"A lot of people don't really know how to do virtual planetarium stuff and how to program, how to go from one kind of software to another smoothly, and I like to think I've gotten pretty good at it, with lots of practice," Brandt said.

During the pandemic, Brandt has done shows for more than 6,000 children in second, third, fourth and sixth grades. He also has hosted many virtual community and planetarium community programming during the pandemic. But nothing beats experiencing the shows in person.

"It will be wonderful to actually see faces and kids interacting with stuff and hear their reaction in real time," Brandt said. "It's really hard virtually to do this — to actually immerse them in the night sky.

"Kids can look up all around them and see them all around them. On the computer screen it's right in front of them in a box, so it's harder to get that immersive feel."

The retrofitted facility will have several interactive exhibits at which participants get to learn, in addition to the 20-foot-long inflatable planetarium.

The planetarium uses Nightshade, a simulation and visualization system that is projected inside the structure to get the feeling of being under the night sky or in space.

"Our new program is going to be about the three rovers we have on Mars right now," Brandt said.

During the June shows, Brandt will help participants discover what makes these Mars rovers work and how they're doing so far. A guest speaker from the Jet Propulsion Lab in California will tune in via Zoom to discuss the rovers and answer questions about Perseverance and Curiosity.

Admission is free, but attendance at each event is capped at 20 people per program. Current PSRC policy requires social distancing, and face masks must be worn by all while inside the Planetarium and Science Center.

"It's going to be a safe environment," Brandt said.

To schedule a time for a small group or family, contact Joy Ivey at 910-671-6000, ext. 3381.

Programs also have been scheduled throughout the summer for PSRC and Robeson Community College summer camps. Other camp groups are welcome to schedule events.

"Mr. Brandt, PSRC planetarium director, has done a tremendous job in hosting free virtual programs for students and community members since the pandemic began, and we are happy that students will now have the opportunity to learn and participate in person," Burnette said. "The planetarium is a source of education and entertainment to everyone in Robeson County, and we are hopeful our community members will be able to attend in-person programs in the near future."

Tomeka Sinclair can be reached at [email protected] or 910-416-5865.