Star of Wonder, Star of Night 

Faith and science converge at Boise planetarium

Tom Campbell opened the T.C. Bird Planetarium at Christmastime in 1969. He has presented a "Star of Bethlehem" show every Christmas--save one--since.

Patrick Sweeney

Tom Campbell opened the T.C. Bird Planetarium at Christmastime in 1969. He has presented a "Star of Bethlehem" show every Christmas--save one--since.

Christmas Eve, 1968. It is estimated that as many as 1 billion people across the globe watched as a grainy black-and-white image glowed from television sets. It was a live broadcast from the crew of Apollo 8 showing the surface of the moon. The United States was gripped with space fever in anticipation of man's first walk on the moon seven months later, so it was with a special sense of awe that viewers glimpsed not only a live image of the moon but planet Earth slowly emerging on the horizon.

"We're approaching the lunar sunrise," said Apollo 8 lunar module pilot Bill Anders, who also took a photograph of Earth that was to become one of the most reproduced images in history. "And for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you."

What followed was controversial, to be sure. It turns out that the crew had brought a copy of the King James Bible aboard and each of the three astronauts took turns reading the first few verses of the Book of Genesis as their capsule skimmed over the lunar surface.

"In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth," read Anders.

Years later, the astronauts said they saw no contradiction in reading a biblical passage that was at odds with the science that had propelled them into history.

"And God saw that it was good," read mission commander Frank Borman. "And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night and good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you—all of you on the good Earth."

Faith and science have often collided, but in that particular Christmas they met briefly in a bold and, some would say, improvisational call by NASA. Command module pilot Jim Lovell would radio back to Earth the next morning, "Roger, please be informed there is a Santa Claus."

Meanwhile, back on Earth, a much smaller miracle was starting to come true in Boise, where school administrators, having been turned down by voters the year before, were able to convince enough taxpayers to pass what they called a "no frills bond" to expand some classrooms and build a planetarium, part of a new wing on Capital High School.

"Actually, half of the money came from the U.S. government," said Tom Campbell. "The feds were funding planetariums throughout the United States because of the new interest in the space program."

Campbell, 75, was teaching chemistry at North Junior High School at the time, "But I applied for the planetarium job and got it."

Boise's new indoor star show was designed by Pennsylvania-based Spitz, Inc., still considered the world's top designer of planetariums (the company has installed more than 1,200 across the planet). Campbell was there in 1969 to take the keys to the T.C. Bird Planetarium, named for the then-Boise schools superintendent who secured the bond's passage. To this day, Campbell says he's the only one with the keys—more on that in a moment.

The Christmas Star

"We wanted to do something special when we first opened and it was Christmastime," said Campbell. "So we put together a show on the Star of Bethlehem."

Forty-five years later, he'll be dimming the lights this Christmas and guiding visitors through a special program that investigates the theories and science behind what may have happened in the sky 2,000 years ago. The planetarium has been dark only once, five years ago, when Campbell needed to take his wife to Salt Lake City for medical treatment (she's doing fine now).

"But I change the program each year; this year I'm going to be talking about the Rosetta space probe [and its breathtaking touchdown on a comet flying 34,000 mph through space in November], and the New Horizons spacecraft which is heading to Pluto next July," said Campbell.

The T.C. Bird Planetarium has awestruck thousands of Boise school children over the decades—many of those years, it was a part of the third-grade curriculum. Just this past year, the school district shifted astronomy to sixth grade. Additionally, Campbell puts together special demonstrations for fourth-graders studying Native American mythology and fifth-graders studying explorers who used the skies to blaze trails.

"But 10 years ago, they almost closed the planetarium down," said Campbell. "So I went to the district and offered to retire if they would let me come back and run the planetarium and they agreed. I'm not a teacher anymore, but I'm paid for 10 hours a week to do the planetarium programs for the kids. The district keeps the planetarium going with an annual maintenance budget of $8,000-$9,000. That includes a technician from Pennsylvania coming here once a year to take our main systems apart and replace all of the parts."

Campbell said he's thrilled that the district has kept the program running.

"What can I say? This is a great retirement. I can't think of another job where you give a lesson to kids and you get an ovation."

And this year, just like nearly every other year since 1969, Campbell will also swing the doors open to the planetarium to the general public for the Star of Bethlehem program, running twice an evening from Wednesday, Dec. 17-Tuesday, Dec. 23 (admission is $4 for adults, $2 for students and seniors). Boise Weekly asked Campbell to dim the lights one more time to give us our own exclusive preview of his presentation.

"We're going back in time, 2,000 years to re-create what would have been the night sky in that time," he said as our eyes adjusted to the pitch black. "The best possibility to explain the Star of Bethlehem is that it wasn't a star at all. It was a triple conjunction of planets, as one planet passes another, involving Jupiter and Saturn, around the time of 6 B.C. ... The word 'planet' means 'wander' in Latin, and indeed Jupiter and Saturn are wandering. But their last conjunction was in the western sky, which would have been over Bethlehem. And we believe that the wise men would been traveling from the east."

And what about those "wise men?"

"There were people called Zoroastrians [practicing a monotheistic Iranian belief system] and they studied the skies. We would call them astrologers," said Campbell. "And this conjunction of the planets would have been very important to them because it occurred within the constellation of Pisces. Anything happening in Pisces would have connoted a significant event at the same time on Earth."

Finding Jupiter or Saturn in today's night sky isn't too difficult, although it helps to have someone like Campbell nearby.

"Saturn is only about as bright as a pretty bright star, but Jupiter is two to three times as bright as any star. At midnight tonight, you'll see Jupiter rising in the east and at sunrise, it's almost straight overhead," said Campbell, who sped up and slowed down the planets and stars to illustrate the passing of time. "Yes, the planets are moving around the sun, but because of the earth's motion and their own motion, Jupiter and Saturn appear to be stopping and moving backwards and then forward again. For a period of about five months, these planets are very close to one another in the sky. And that motion would have been very important to the wise men."

Why 6 B.C.?

"That's because the calendar was made up after Christ was born. We know that they got the dates wrong," said Campbell, who added that the skies over the Middle East aren't dramatically different than Southwest Idaho. "They're at the 30th parallel; Boise is at about 43 degrees. You're seeing the same stars, a little different but not much."

Two thousand years doesn't change things that much either, considering that a star's life span is closer to 10 million years.

Unfortunately, stargazing has become a bit more challenging with the preponderance of so-called "light pollution," the excessive amount of manmade light that dims the natural clarity of the night sky.

"In Boise, outside at night, we see in the neighborhood of 1,200 stars. If you go to McCall or Sun Valley, you can see close to 1,500; that's about as many stars as you'll see at one time," said Campbell. "But those numbers are going down, because we're getting more light pollution all the time."

As much as Campbell loves to talk about the past, he's more excited about the future.

"Did you see Orion blast off this morning?" he asked.

NASA's new Orion spacecraft had launched on the very same day that BW met Campbell. Its successful Dec. 5 test mission was the first leap of a project that could send the rocket farther from Earth than any spacecraft built for humans.

"It's terribly exciting," said Campbell.

If all goes as planned, Orion could send a crew to Mars sometime in the 2030s, meaning those astronauts are probably young school children right now—about the same age as the boys and girls who will walk into the T.C. Bird Planetarium for the first time this year. And Campbell will be among the first to guide them through the stars.

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