Coloradan – February 2002
By Preston Dyches
The solar system began in the 1980s and extends 3.6 billion miles from Fiske Planetarium to Colorado Avenue. Well, sort of. CU-Boulder’s scale model of the solar system was designed by a group of students and faculty in the 1980’s led by astrophysicists Jeffrey Bennett and Tom Ayres.
Bennett was part of the team that created the Smithsonian Institution’s new scale model solar system, dedicated in October on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. “Voyage: A Journey Through Our Solar System” is a permanent outdoor representation of Earth’s celestial neighborhood at one 10-billionth scale – just like the CU model.
In the 80’s, Bennett realized the need for a learning tool that would accurately convey a sense of the enormity of the universe. Three of his honors undergraduate astronomy students – Ken Center (Aero’89), Matt Carter (PolSci’89, MChin’93) and Ron Bass (Bus ex’89) – joined him and Ayres in creating CU’s solar system scale model. The exhibit was dedicated to the crew of the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle, which included CU alumnus Ellison Onizuka (Aero MA’69). The model was refurbished in 1993, largely through the work of Ayres and then CU-Boulder student Jodi Schoemer (DistStd’94, MMsmStd’99).
In 1991 Bennett was able to interest the Smithsonian in the idea of a permanent scale model of the solar system. Impressed with Schomer’s work refurbishing the CU model, the project head hired her to assist on the D.C. model.
The Voyage development team set out to change people’s perspectives about their place in the universe and the human ability to explore space. Bennett is pleased that his idea has become a learning tool to be seen by millions of visitors.
Bennett says that one of the things that makes the exhibit special is the sense it gives visitors that humans inhabit a very tiny place in the grand scheme of things. “You have this feeling that is everybody in the world understood we live on a very small and fragile planet, we might be kinder to one another.”