Nov 052006
Authors: Hilary Davis

From the outside, the bubble-shaped Starlab is an example of ever-evolving technology, but the stories told inside brought people back to the past.

Like Native Americans around a campfire in a teepee, several children and their parents huddled around a red light inside Starlab and gazed upward, waiting for the stars to come out Friday.

Starlab is a planetarium that belongs to the Fort Collins-based Discovery Science Center. The large, inflatable dome travels statewide. Presenters placed a cylindrical gel over a red light to change the appearance of the sky inside the dome.

In honor of Native American Awareness Month, Starlab presents the show “Native American Skies” each November.

“There are 88 standardized constellations the American Astronomical Society uses,” said Liz Gaylor, a mechanical engineering student and a Starlab presenter. “We know most of these constellations by their Latin or Greek names, but different cultures have other names for the stars.”

One standardized constellation is Cassiopeia, a cluster of stars named for a Greek queen. In Lakota tribe lore, these stars are known as First Woman.

“I think it’s fascinating that people picked out the same group of stars and attributed the same qualities to them – all looked at Cassiopeia and saw the shape of a woman,” Gaylor said. “I don’t see that at all.”

In Native American myth, the Milky Way is often known as the Spirit Path. The constellation Gemini is sometimes called the Place of Decision, where someone could look to meditate for help in solving problems.

Even the origin of the stars has a story behind it; the Plains Indians believed that animals went up into the sky to draw pictures of themselves for decoration, except for the coyote.

“Why do you think coyotes howl at the moon?” Gaylor asked the crowd. “They howl because there are no pictures of them in the night sky.”

For many children, visiting the Starlab and hearing new stories makes for happy childhood memories, but for Gaylor, the children make the moments memorable.

“It’s so fun working with kids,” she said. “I’ve always been into astronomy and this is a fun thing to do.”

Lesley Drayton, educational coordinator for the Fort Collins Museum, said she loves the Starlab presentations.

“Because it’s a live show, the presenters can answer questions and change the program all the time,” Drayton said. “Or they can change the sky to show us things that we might never see, like the Southern Cross, which you can only see in the Southern hemisphere. Some people might never be able to visit there.”

Discovery Science Center receives a grant from NASA each year to continue the Starlab program.

“Teaching little kids is rewarding,” Gaylor said. “I love how excited they get, and I love being able to start a dialogue with them, to get them to think about space, how things move in space, why a star is even a star.”

Staff writer Hilary Davis can be reached at

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