Academy graduates returning to Annapolis after a prolonged absence will have ample opportunity to awaken their suspicions that the old school has really changed, and that the present-day midshipmen are instructed by methods not in vogue along the Severn twenty-five years ago. As proof of this they may cite the Spitz Planetarium which is installed in a building hidden between Luce and Macdonough Halls.
Just as a ship goes through many alterations during its lifetime, so has the planetarium idea gone through many phases in the past few years. During World War II the opportunity for giving midshipmen training afloat was drastically reduced, and consequently new graduates went to sea with one or more year’s training in theoretical navigation, but possibly with a practical background consisting of having taken and worked out only a few, if any, of their own sights. With a view to correcting this deficiency, a Link Celestial Trainer was constructed in a temporary building next to Luce Hall. With some modifications this was suitable for surface navigation work. Before the Trainer was used to any great extent the end of the War brought the resumption of the normal midshipmen practice cruises. The Trainer stood idle.
About two years ago the idea of supplementing the classroom navigation instruction of the second classmen reawakened interest in the unused Link building. The thought was that several lectures with the celestial sphere as a background would give the astronomy course a foundation not otherwise obtainable. At present the course taught by the Department of Seamanship and Navigation is made up of Navigation during the second class year. First class year it is largely a general information course for the prospective Officer of the Deck. The planetarium, then, is utilized entirely by the second class. The demonstrations assist the midshipmen in understanding the basic definitions in astronomy such as altitude, azimuth, right ascension, declination, siderial time, and the celestial triangle. It also assists them in placing the various constellations and the more prominent navigational stars. It does not mean that the young gentlemen do not have to study.
A Spitz planetarium consists essentially of a black opaque twelve sided Vinylite figure about eighteen inches in diameter. In this are drilled small holes. Light passing through the holes is projected upon the inside of a dome representing the celestial sphere which at the Academy is an aluminum hemisphere twenty feet in diameter. The figure, together with additional projectors to show the meridians, the astronomical triangle, and the hour circle is mounted on a pedestal, and may be adjusted to show the appearance of the sky at any time and at any latitude as far as 30° South. Provision is also made to show the moon, planets, and the geocentric earth. The auxiliary projectors may be turned off unless their use for illustrative purposes is desired. The entire apparatus is placed on a table, level with the bottom of the aluminum hemisphere', and is sufficiently high so that even though the student may have his mind far away Pegasus will not be tatooed on his head. One half a battalion of a class can be accommodated underneath the dome.
The planetarium was comparatively inexpensive, and can easily be moved should it be necessary to reinstall the Link trainer.
In addition to the educational use of the planetarium, it is useful in other ways to the Academy, and still in others to the Navy at large. Last year before the Newport- Bermuda race in which the Academy had a number of entries, there were two demonstrations which took the prospective navigators along their intended track to point out which stars and planets would be visible, and which would offer the best intercepts for sights.
The equipment has also been in demand by the local Naval Reserve units and the Power Squadron. This year, for the first time, it was opened on Saturday mornings when demonstrations were given to the families of faculty members, Scout Troops, and other interested organizations. Cynics may question this, but the lectures given the second class are not those geared to a Brownie Scout. Consequently the instructor has to pull the right lecture out of his hat if he expects to keep either category of audience awake and interested. Thus far there has been little difficulty in achieving this aim.
By virtue of its location the Academy will always acquaint more foreign and civil visitors with the Navy than any other organization. Although there is no lack of places to visit before the Wednesday afternoon Prade the planetarium does fulfill a need. It is not classified, and can be presented to any audience. It serves as a recuperation point in the tours. Many foreign naval attaches and numbers of both the American Astronomical Society and the Navigation Institute have signed the guest book. The past year of operation indicates that the planetarium is paying dividends in terms of improved understanding of celestial navigation and better public relations.