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Prospects looking up for East Lyme High School planetarium

East Lyme — There could be stars in the simulated sky of the East Lyme High School planetarium as soon as this fall if a local group of enthusiasts is able to secure funding for a roughly $32,000 projector.

It's welcome news to Dallas Capozza, a Colorado-based aerospace engineer who found her direction under the dome in East Lyme when she was a junior in high school.

The 2013 graduate went on to earn a degree in mechanical engineering from Colorado School of Mines. She is set to embark on a career as a systems/test engineer at Lockheed Martin in Colorado, where she was able to leverage an extensive resume of college internships and experiences — for organizations like NASA, Virgin Galactic and Lockheed Martin itself — to land the job. But she credited her hometown planetarium with setting her course.

"When I took the class at the planetarium, I fell in love with space," she said by phone Friday.

At first, she thought following that passion meant becoming an astrophysicist. Then college showed her how much engineering is involved in space. Now, she is looking forward to working on propulsion systems for satellites and rockets for the global aeronautics giant.

Capozza said teachers and professors didn't always believe in her, and the typical high school curriculum didn't always engage her. But studying astronomy in the planetarium made science interesting. Seeing how it played out in real life gave her confidence.

"I nerd out on constellations, the stories behind them and where they are in the sky," she said. She recalled an evening when her teacher took the class out to see in the big night sky what they had learned how to find in the 24-foot dome of the planetarium.

Capozza described herself as committed to doing anything she can for this initiative, which is being led by STARS to STEM, Inc., which stands for Society Takes Action and Risks in Science to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

STARS to STEM director and president Diane Swan said the nonprofit organization, incorporated in 2019, has already raised close to $19,000, including a $5,000 grant from the Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation, and $1,000 from Chelsea Groton Foundation. The group began as a grassroots effort two years' prior when Swan learned the school district was planning to turn the planetarium space, which had been stripped of its projector and theater-style seating in 2013, into a special education classroom.

"There's a lot of students that have been inspired by this room. I know it was inspiring to me as a first grader," Swan said. The planetarium experience led the fledgling scientist to write letters to astronauts who rewarded her with a big manilla envelope filled with photographs and autographs.

The organization has proposed upgrading the planetarium room into both an educational space and one for the community at large, with no town taxpayer money. Their plan is to deliver programming for all ages in all sorts of ways, from serving as a space laboratory for kids in preschool through grade 12, to hosting field trips for area students, to providing the opportunity for fee-based movie nights for local groups or meeting space for area businesses.

"It has so much untapped potential that we're really just starting to scratch the surface of," she said.

Swan hopes to bring in another $20,000 this month through the "Striking a Match" campaign. An anonymous donor has agreed to match donations up to a total of $10,000. That will bring the group to phase two of the project, which covers the audio component of the planetarium shows. Phase three will include the purchase of flexible seating that can be reconfigured or stored as needed.

Swan said the total cost is expected to be around $53,000, which is significantly lower than initial estimates three years ago that have gone down as projectors became more portable and less expensive.

The group's plan also estimates about $80,000 in annual costs once they get up and running, according to January Board of Education meeting minutes. The group plans to cover the costs through grants, corporate sponsors and fees.

An initial proposal to charge school districts a $22,000 fee, including East Lyme, was changed after East Lyme school board members questioned the idea of charging that fee for the East Lyme school district when the facility was originally designed for the town's students. Swan said the revised plan is to have East Lyme students attend educational shows during school hours as an extension of their science curriculum with no fees charged.

Recalling that the planetarium was installed in 1972, not long after Neil Armstrong took his first "small step" on the surface of the moon, Swan said she hopes the renewed fascination with space travel will bode well for the group's fundraising campaign.

High-profile billionaire businessmen like Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk have been engaging in what the Associated Press described as a "billionaire space race." All three of the men's three private space companies plan to take paying customers into space, according to the Associated Press.

Swan said COVID-19 has also changed the landscape for space appreciation now that families have spent more time outside amid the pandemic.

"They were taking the time to stop to notice this stuff, which was pretty incredible," she said.

East Lyme High School head custodian Michael Hewitt on Friday called the return of the planetarium, "long overdue."

Hewitt, who has worked at the school for 13 years, said it was amazing to see the looks of wonder on elementary school students back when they visited the planetarium on field trips.

"They're like, 'Wow, I never knew,'" he said. "Most of the time, people don't ever look up."

e.regan@theday.com  

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