Exploring Space at Oakland’s Chabot Center

By Lydia Gans, Special to the Planet
Thursday August 21, 2008 - 10:36:00 AM
The Chabot Space and Science Center on Skyline Boulevard.
Lydia Gans
The Chabot Space and Science Center on Skyline Boulevard.

The Bay Area is known to be home to esoteric scientific research, but we also have an institution which is accessible to all kinds of people, young and old and all levels of sophistication, offering an abundance of science experiences one can’t help but get excited about. At Chabot Space and Science Center a visitor can look through professional telescopes, sit in a space capsule, experience weightlessness, see spectacular shows and lots more. 

The center is on Skyline Boulevard, an easy drive (or somewhat challenging bike ride) from Joaquin Miller Road. It is situated in a beautiful setting overlooking the bay. There are two large buildings connected by a skybridge housing a variety of interactive exhibits, workshops, laboratories and meeting rooms. The MegaDome Theater shows breathtaking nature films and the planetarium boasts one of the most advanced star-projection systems on the planet. There is a Discovery Lab for 4- to 7-year-olds and a Teacher Resource Center. In the Challenger Learning Center a group of people can participate in a simulated space mission—it provides an interesting experience in working together to accomplish a complex project. Meeting rooms are available for classes and special events. 

On top of it all is a rooftop plaza—1,543 feet above sea level—offering a spectacular view of the Bay Area. On the deck are three domes each housing a large telescope. The telescopes are used by professionals for research but on Friday and Saturday nights they are open and free to the public (weather permitting). On those nights each telescope is focused on something interesting—it might be the ringed planet Saturn up close or some far off galaxy—and visitors can climb up the ladder to look through the eyepiece and gaze in awe into the heavens. During the day volunteers often set up solar telescopes which have special filters for viewing the sun. 

Leah, the smallest of the telescopes (all three scopes have names and there’s a story to go with them), is an eight-inch refractor that was constructed in 1883. It was donated by Anthony Chabot, who funded an observatory in downtown Oakland to house it (it was dark in those days!). The observatory also had a meridian transit telescope which was used to keep accurate time. A condition of Chabot’s gift was that access to the telescope would always be free to the public.  

In 1914 a new observatory was built up on Mountain Boulevard and Leah was moved there. At the same time, Rachel, a 20-inch refracting telescope, was built and installed there. Rachel has long been the largest refracting telescope in the western United States that is regularly open to the public. The Mountain Boulevard site also had a planetarium, labs, classrooms and exhibits for children as well as adults. Ultimately, it was found not to be earthquake-safe and another move was needed. In 2000 the present facility, now named Chabot Space and Science Center, was opened on Skyline Boulevard. Leah and Rachel were moved up and in 2003 Nellie was built. It is a 36-inch, totally modern reflecting telescope, fully computer-controlled with a digital camera that can display images on Chabot’s website, chabotspace.org. It can “see” further—that it, is collects about three times as much light—than Rachel.  

Inside the buildings are packed with dozens of interactive exhibits and three large theme rooms to entice and educate visitors of all ages.  

The “Solar-Go-Round” room displays our solar system, showing the relative sizes and composition of the sun and the planets and has a series of small displays and kiosks illustrating how gravity acts, how weather is formed on the different planets, and all sorts of other phenomena. The “Destination Universe” room takes the visitor from our sun out into the vast reaches of the universe, explaining how stars are born and die, how nebulae are formed, what galaxies are like, and what happens when two galaxies collide. There is even a black hole to crawl into—but this one allows you to come out the other side. A traveling exhibit room is currently showing “Beyond Blastoff: Surviving in Space.” There is, among other things, a Russian Mir Space Station toilet and an actual Soyuz re-entry module. In this exhibit a visitor can experience what it feels like to perform certain tasks in zero gravity—and even have their picture taken in a condition of (simulated) weightlessness. 

Another section of the building focuses on the moon, detailing the Russian and American moon explorations. There is a Mercury capsule that a visitor can sit in—it’s a great photo-op for kids. A model shows what causes the appearance of phases of the moon and another explains why one side of the moon is always away from us. There are moon rocks and meteors galore, and lots more.