St. Louis on the Air
7:45 pm
Tue April 16, 2013

50 Years Of Astronomy In St. Louis

In 1961, a parent of one of Charles Schweighauser’s students told him that a planetarium was being built in Forest Park and suggested that he apply for the job of director.  He figured that he was too young, but applied anyway.  Much to his surprise, he was hired the day before his 25th birthday.  Almost two years later, on April 16, 1963, the James S. McDonnell Planetarium opened its doors giving St. Louisans a state-of-the art way to view the universe in its star chamber.  The space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was in high gear at that time, so interest in astronomy was high.

In addition to his other duties at the new planetarium, Schweighauser taught students from three area universities, Washington University, Saint Louis University and the brand-new University of Missouri – St. Louis.

Across town, the engineers at McDonnell Aircraft were front and center in the space race.  Norm Beckel,  an engineer at McDonnell from 1958 until 1993, was a member of the launch team of Mercury and was part of launch operations of Gemini.  Just before Beckel came to work at McDonnell, the company had competed with several other companies, coming up with a plan that NASA liked, and was rewarded the Mercury contract and later would get the nod for the Gemini project too. “We were in on the ground floor of something that was remarkable,” he said. 

In 1962, after the U.S. had lost the first three legs of the space race to the Soviets who had put its Sputnik satellite in orbit and then had sent both a dog and a man into space and back, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed that the U.S. would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade.  Schweighauser remembers the excitement he felt at that announcement and never doubted that it would become a reality.  Beckel observed, “In the 1960's, we went from nothing [after the Navy had failed in its effort to put a satellite into orbit] to putting a man on the moon.”

Schweighauser also points to the boon to his field of astronomical research when satellites could be put in the atmosphere to study the universe.  And while it seems that there is less activity dealing with space, he maintains that there is more data coming in from all the satellites and probes than there are trained people to analyze it.

When asked to name a remaining mystery, Schweighauser responded, “Dark energy, which makes up most of the universe.  We think it’s everywhere but we haven’t the foggiest notion of what it is and when you add dark energy and dark matter, that makes up 95 percent of the universe.” And to the question of whether there is other life in the universe he said, “It would be a very strange universe if there were not some other forms of life in the universe.”

Both Schweighauser and Beckel embrace efforts to interest more young people in their fields.  Schweighauser believes that involving more women is a key.  Beckel is encouraged by the increased focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), one example being the Boy Scout STEM merit badge.

As part of the Planetarium’s 50th anniversary celebration, Schweighauser, now a Professor Emeritus of Astronomy/Physics at the University of Illinois at Springfield, will give a talk focusing on what we have learned about the electromagnetic spectrum and dark energy, the discovery of nearby extra-Solar system planets and the search for planets that could support life.

Charles Schweighauser, Norm Beckel and Jennifer Heim, Director of Strategic Projects and Programs at the Saint Louis Science Center were Don Marsh’s guests on St. Louis on the Air.  Their discussion included the history of the Planetarium, the role McDonnell Aircraft played in the space race, the state of astronomical research and the Planetarium’s 50th anniversary celebration activities.

Interview with Charles Schweighauser, Norm Beckel and Jennifer Heim

Related Event

Saint Louis Science Center Presents 50 Years of Astronomy with Professor Charles Schweighauser
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
7:00 p.m.
James S. McDonnell Planetarium, 5050 Oakland Ave, (314) 289-4424
Saint Louis Science Center Website

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