Transcript: Space4U podcast, Judy Cara

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Hello, I am Colleen Kiernan with the Space Foundation and you’re listening to the Space4U podcast. Space4U is designed to tell the stories of the amazing people who make today’s space. Flourish and possible today we are joined page Judy Cara, the planetarium and STEM center project manager for the U.S Air Force Academy here in Colorado Springs.


Judy recently oversaw the massive makeover of the Air Force Academy’s planetarium, which had been closed for 15 years to the public and just recently reopened. Judy grew up in England, and speaks five languages, and was more interested in the arts as a student than the STEM fields. She has been an active member of the Colorado Springs community, and we are honored to have her on the show today.


Thank you for joining us Judy, absolutely, and really appreciate it. So, first of all, we said a little bit about your background, but can you go into a little bit more detail and tell us about yourself? Absolutely. You already mentioned that I’m English and that’s the first thing that people usually ask me.


Where am I from? Sometimes they think I might be from Australia or New Zealand, but I think it’s because I’ve been here a long time. Accent is a little distorted, but people also ask how I wound up here. I worked at the American embassy in London and it was really my mother’s biggest fear that I would marry an American and come to this country.


And that’s exactly what happened. So I did marry an American and, and I came over here, but going into the STEM arena and fortunately talked about with the arts, the education system is somewhat different in England. And at the age of 14, I had to specialize to five. Subjects. And at the age of 16, I had to specialize down to three subjects.


So I really wasn’t very fond of science and math. So it was pretty easy to eliminate them fast forward to when I worked for Intel here on going to the gods road. And I was asked if I would be the education manager temporarily in addition to heading up public fairs, because we didn’t have to have the head count to justify a separate education manager.


And at first I thought, well, that would be okay. Yeah. And then I came to discover that it meant promoting STEM education across the state. And it was a little terrifying because I hadn’t been through the education system in this country when I asked someone how old their kid is. And they said they’re in fourth grade.


I was flabbergasted that didn’t tell me how old they were. It just told me where they were in school. And so I had to get familiar with them. The whole education system and then refamiliarize myself with STEM and it was a little overwhelming at first, but I have to say that I became absolutely passionate about it.


I was able to implement wonderful programs across the stage for Intel. And as a result, I was asked to join the society of manufacturing engineers foundation board, which is a national board. I also was asked to join the advisory board for project lead the way, which is a pre-engineering program in the schools.


I served on a panel with the secretary of education in Denver, and ultimately I was asked to go to Washington DC to testify on the Hill about the importance of STEM education, particularly for girls and underrepresented minorities. I wish my mother was still alive to have witnessed some of that because she would have been shocked.


That’s awesome. And we were kind of talking beforehand that I am not. The big engineering mathematics type person either. So it’s, it’s so great that you don’t have to be the engineer type to be able to be an advocate for the STEM field. So that’s really great now, um, you know, when we were getting everything ready, I’ve noticed you’ve done a lot for the Colorado Springs community.


You’ve been involved in a lot of different projects, a lot of great things. Is there any particular project that you’re proud of STEM related or not? Yes. Well, there’s so many different things. That I’ve done that it’s hard to really identify just one. I’m so grateful for having the opportunity to positively impact young people in many different forums or organizations, whether it’s running a week-long STEM workshop for middle school girls, whether it’s taking local science teachers to entails international science and engineering fair so that they would implement science fairs in their schools.


There’s so many different things, but one of the things I have to. Proud of people often talk about one kid at a time. You can’t influence all of them all the time. And there was a young man who was attending the Intel computer clubhouse that we installed at the Southeast family, Y YMCA. And he wasn’t doing well in school at all, or his GPA was one point something, but he would come into the clubhouse and be very engaged using the computers.


And there was also a music studio there. So the kids could make a video and then go into the music studio. And put music to that video and he was just excelling, and he was mentoring the other kids. And so on, he, he had a difficult home life. He, um, he had some challenges. And so ultimately when I say. Or how well he was doing and the music studio I arranged for Intel to pay for him to go to classes at the Colorado Springs conservatory, which he did during this whole period.


I became a second mother to him really, but his grades improved and ultimately he obtained a scholarship to go to college. And this is a kid who probably would have been flipping burgers if he hadn’t really had that opportunity. So I I’m very proud of that. And I just hope to have similar experiences.


Generating excitement for kids who come to the planetarium out of the Air Force Academy. That’s so fantastic. And that kind of goes back who we were talking to beginning that when you were younger, that you were definitely more about the arts than, than science and math. So, you know, you were more interested in that and now you’re actually in charge of STEM outreach for the Air Force Academy.


When, how does that make you feel? Well, sometimes it feels a bit, lot to be honest. And there’s a lot of technology involved with running the planetarium. I’m not a techie, either. Husband is the techie in our family. He always jokes about I can run a planetarium now, but I can’t use the remote controller at home.


And sometimes it does feel a little weird that I’m dealing with racks of computers. I can troubleshoot. Now when it’s working properly, when there are black areas on the dome and the show isn’t projecting correctly. So it does feel a little strange, but I think you can do it. No dog new tricks. That’s so wonderful.


And we kind of talked a little bit, the planetarium was closed for 15 years. Um, so it just went through this massive renovation, which you over saw and now it’s open again to the public. How exciting was that for you? It was very exciting. It was totally amazing. Not something that I had. I was set out to do in my career.


I just fell into that role and it really has been a phenomenal opportunity. The planetarium opened March the fourth last year. But before that opening, there was an eclipse taken place in January and the observatory director. And I got together and said, we can’t possibly let this eclipse go by without doing something, even though the planetarium wasn’t officially opened.


And so I obtained a show about eclipses and he brought all his telescopes over onto the steps of the planetarium. I put out a news release and I really wasn’t sure if anyone would even come. Because there were already other eclipse viewing events set up in the community to my absolute amazement, we had about a thousand people show up that night.


I ran the show eight times in the planetarium. So we had over 800 people seeing the show. And quite honestly, there were a lot who just couldn’t find a place to park and left, but the amazing thing. Isn’t though people were lined up outside waiting to come in and the cold on a January night, no one complained.


Everyone came in and they were so happy to be in the planetarium when they were leaving. They were just so thankful and appreciative. So we knew then that we were doing the right thing, reopening the planetarium. That’s really awesome. I know that we’ve also seen similar things with the eclipses when we had the full solar that wasn’t quite full here in Colorado.


But in many parts of the nation. And I think that’s one of the things that we love about spaces. It brings everyone together and it’s something we all have in common. It just fascinates all of us. So that’s phenomenal for not even being officially open. It’s pretty amazing. Now with. The renovation, the planetarium has new technology being used.


And you kind of mentioned that it’s it’s a lot. Can you tell us a little bit about this tech and how it works? Yeah. So in the old days, when the planetarium first opened, it was in the round, which is how most planetarium were in those days with one of those big ugly projectors that came up in the middle.


When the plantation Sharon was closed in 2004, all of that was donated and it was just empty in there and being used for storage. But as part of the renovation, we now have. Brand new seats. They will face one direction, which is really the trend with planetary now. And it’s great for us because we can use it for other things like promotion ceremonies or retirement ceremonies, leadership meetings and so on.


But, but as far more than that, the seats are actually, they came all the way from Spain. They were very expensive, but there was a company in this country that made really good seats and it went out of business. So those seats came on a ship into Houston, a train up to Denver, and then there were trucks down.


So if we ever have to replace them, it’s going to be pretty expensive, but they’re very comfortable. I do from time to time, see someone nodding off in them because we have so many visitors who come from all over the world. They’re tired from the journey. They’re not used to the altitude. So I try not to take it too personally.


I see them nodding off out there. But in addition to the seats, we’ve got state-of-the-art technology in there with the state-of-the-art sound system, the latest and greatest computer projectors. And we have a nano SIEM dome, which is the envy of some of my colleagues in the planetarium world, where you really cannot see the seams and it took them weeks to put it in, but it’s pretty fantastic.


So it was well worth the investment that we made to have the latest and greatest. Hopefully it’ll last us awhile. So is it, it’s not actually a projection like it used to be then? Is that what I’m understanding? Well, there, there are six projectors all around the edge embedded in the walls instead of the big ugly one that used to come up in the middle.


So that are bettered in the walls. And each one of them is responsible for kind of a piece of the pie on the dome. And so everything has to be rented so that it’s compatible that each computer projection knows which part they’re responsible for. So they either don’t overlap or they don’t have a gap in between the part that they’re responsible for.


Gotcha. That makes sense. And, um, I know that I’ve heard that the renovations, um, a lot of the funds for it were actually donated, is that right? That’s right. Some of it did, of course come from the us government, some of the building costs and so on, but all of the equipment and the shows and so on were paid for by our graduates.


And we feel extremely fortunate that they were generous. The gentleman who kicked off John Martinson is a grad. And he came back for his class reunion and was pretty upset to see that planetarium was all closed up, wasn’t being used. And so he kicked off the campaign with about $2 million and then our foundation was able to raise the additional 3 million that we needed for the renovation.


That’s fantastic. And you know, we’ve seen how many astronauts come out of the. Air Force Academy as well. So yeah, obviously the school’s doing a lot of the right things of setting these people on the right path to do wonderful things for others. That’s really awesome to hear hope. So now you offer any different shows.


Um, I think there, I saw one about humpback whales on the website, so they’re not just all about. Space. So usually when people think of a planetarium, I know at least for me, um, I always think of space. So what makes a planetarium a planetarium? Well, it’s interesting that you say that because I grew up going to the planetarium in London with my dad.


And of course it was always stars and space related stuff. And I think a lot of people still think that everything in a planetarium is astronomy related and we do still do that. But before we opened, I met with local schools and higher education. Just to see how we could fit their needs. And many of them asked us for shows relating to engineering or natural sciences, that kind of thing.


And so I realized that I needed to look beyond the traditional kind of shows. So we have one called dream big, which is about engineering projects all over the world, which is very popular, particularly with national engineers week coming up and then humpback whales and great bear rainforest. Very natural science oriented.


And so the schools love bringing the kids in for those how back Wells was my favorite until we got superpower dogs. But, uh, when you see those whales up on the dome and they make that whale noise, which I will try to emulate. But when they’re up there and they make that well noise, the console actually vibrates.


It’s really fun. Wow. That’s going to be a lot of fun. So does it have, or they have to be specially, uh, filmed films. So I know that I am ex he has, they’re kind of special cameras and, you know, we have the science on a sphere here when you can’t just throw something on there because the shape of it. So does the dome create any difficulties with, it has to be a certain format for the film.


So. It does have to be a certain format. As I mentioned earlier, things have to be rented for those particular projectors so that they know which part of the film is going to be on the part of the dome that they’re responsible for. So, it’s funny, you mentioned IMAX because many of our shows were originally IMAX shows and we have to send them to the company that installed our equipment so that they change the format from the IMAX format to something that will work on a full term.


And it’s amazing how it works. It’s quite incredible. We can show just regular DVDs as well. If we get the license, of course, to do that. And they do just come out as a big rectangle, just a giant rectangle. But if it’s something that we’re going to be shown regularly, then we send it off. So that it’s rented particularly for the dome.


Very cool. That’s so super duper. Awesome. I think so what is your favorite part of being a part of the planetarium? Well, you’ve already touched on it. It’s that opportunity to influence young people. Just last week, we had Colonel Nick Hague here, who is a graduate and an astronaut, and he talks about how, when he was six years old, he went to that planetarium with his dad.


And that’s what convinced him he should apply to become a cadet and then subsequently an astronaut. And he actually made a video for me from the international space station where. He looks out at the kids when they’re in the planetarium. So I was sitting in those seats a number of years ago and look where I am now and you can do the same thing and he tells them to aim high.


And I think it’s just an amazing opportunity to have that influence. So now when we have school trips come in, who usually come on a Tuesday and Thursday morning, not always, but usually that’s when I have a volunteer Dan Palsgrove who is a retired member of our faculty. And he comes and he actually was in the same class as Colonel Hague.


And so it was great to see them having a reunion when Colonel Hague arrived. But Dan will come in and we show a show just like we normally do to the public. But then Dan does a lot of interactive educational exercises with the kids and that is extraordinarily popular. And we have so many requests for school, field trips.


It’s, it’s pretty amazing. And then you see their faces when they’re leaving. I feel very fortunate. To have a job where I made people happy. Some of the kids, especially the little ones they’ll come and they’ll just hug me and say, I loved it. And I don’t think many people have a job where you get that kind of immediate feedback.


I don’t think so. So that is certainly something very, very special. Now, um, in that realm here, you’ve got full day field trips. For schools, which include the planetarium, but these field trips can include other activities as well. So what are the kind of options I guess, for a teacher in the area?


Absolutely. So in addition to coming into the planetarium and seeing a show and working with our astronomer, we can arrange for STEM hands-on activities. One of my colleagues does a lot of chemistry, demonstrations, that kind of thing. And we can make arrangements so that the kids can have a full day out that maybe they come to the planetarium in the morning, then they have the line.


And then they go across the truck. So that child into the laboratories and can choose some hands on activities. We’re also making arrangements for what we call physics is fun. It’s one of our programs to be available in the planetarium as well, because our astronomer, Dan Palsgrove used to teach that when he was a member of faculty.


So we’re getting the supplies so that he can even do that right there in the planetarium. So they don’t have to go off anywhere. And we also can make arrangements. For the students to go to our visitor center, which is really very interesting. And if they’re old enough to appreciate it, we’ve known each for a docent to show them around and really explain what goes on at the Academy.


So there’s a number of different things that they can do while they’re with us. That’s great. So it’s, and it sounds like since we’ve. You’ve got the different videos with the natural sciences. Cause that’s what the teachers requested that there can be a variety of topics that they can come and learn about.


It sounds like absolutely. We let the teacher choose which show they want their students to see when they make the reservation. So it’s all over the place. Some want the traditional stuff, like the show on eclipses and others really want to give them something else to see, uh, maybe about the Northern lights.


Or something like that. And so we just let them choose and if they want some guidance, of course, some that, so, very cool. So what does the local community need to know about planning a visit to the planetarium? Where can they learn more information? Well, they can go to our website where all the information is shown.


It’s So a lot of people are concerned about coming onto the Academy. Oh, Are they going to stop me at the gate? Am I going to be able to get in? It really isn’t as complicated as, as people think we just encourage people to allow enough time to get through the gate.


Sometimes you sail straight through and other times there’s a line and we can never predict how that’s going to be. And so we always ask people to allow time to get through the gate. Everyone over the age of 18 needs, a government issued ID, which is usually a driver’s license. And we do ask that drivers have their vehicle insurance with them.


Sometimes they’re asked for it. Sometimes they aren’t. But one of the really important things about coming to the planet chairman was that we don’t take reservations except for very special shows. But we do ask that people look at the show schedule ahead of time online and determine which of the shows that they really want to see.


Instead of calling me up all the time, my phone rings off. The hook and nine times out of 10 people could get behind, so on the website. So it would give me more time to do other exciting things if I’m not always answering the telephone, but there’s no cost and people are always amazed by that, that we do put these shows on no reservations, no cost.


And we just encourage people to come on out. Yeah. I was honestly surprised when I saw they were free as well. And I thought, well, that can’t be right. And there’s nothing for free nowadays. Well, eventually we hope to offer laser shows out there. Laser shows to music, which we think will be very popular, particularly with young people.


And we do have approval to charge a small amount for those, but that’s in the future. We haven’t got to that. And is this seven days a week or is it just Monday through Friday through Friday, we have the shows for the public at 12:30 and 1:30, but people can always contact me to be pushed on onto my list so that when I’ve got any special.


Show’s coming up. I can notify them so that they know that’s happening. Do you have a schedule of, you know, a new show may come every summer or anything like that plan right now? Um, I changed the schedule on January 2nd. And so I inserted for new shows then. And what I discovered early on, and this was a learning experience was that if you change the show schedule too frequently, it confuses people because they may look at the schedule.


Like two weeks before they planned to come out and don’t go back and look. And so they don’t know the schedules change. So they come out thinking they’re going to see humpback whales and they wind up seeing fighter pilot. And they don’t really complain, but they’re like, Oh, that’s a surprise. I thought it was so-and-so.


So it’s easier if I don’t change it too often. And then everyone knows what to expect and whereabouts to get in the peak of tourist season here in Colorado Springs, which, um, we make. Every list, it seems like a places to visit. Um, so I imagine that, you know, with the summer coming, will you offer more shows since you may not have school field trips coming?


Yes. When I discovered last spring break is that it was extraordinarily popular out there during spring break. And so I had just originally planned. The two lunchtime shows and there was still a line outside as if it was a Disney ride. So I just spontaneously kept doing shows until everyone was satisfied.


It wasn’t fair to turn people away. I’m a bit of a softy like that. So this spring break, I will anticipate that and be prepared for it. And then we always put on more shows at times like graduation week parents weekend. When we know there’s going to be a lot of people there so that they’re not lined up.


Outside. They can actually schedule a show because we’ve got more offerings going on. Okay. Do you have a suggestion of how early to arrive, especially maybe once summer hits that it might be a little bit busier than coming in the dead of winter. Sorry, come in. I usually anticipate that they should be there about 30 minutes ahead of time to make sure that they get a seat and they’re all settled before we start the show.


Wonderful. Well, is there anything else that you’d like to add? I mean, this is just it’s super. Very exciting. And I know we had first talked, I’d mentioned I haven’t been to a planetarium since I was probably second or third grade and it was up in Denver. So, you know, it’s been a long time, so I know I’m really excited to have this right in our backyard now here in the Springs.


Um, but is there anything else that you’d like to share about the planetarium or your experiences? Well, I’m just really thrilled to have this position. Like I said, where I can make people happy, but I’m just thrilled that it’s been so embraced by the local community and the business. The goal for our first year was to have 25,000 with us just as of now, we’ve had over 41,000.


So I’m a little competitive. I’m thinking that by our first anniversary on March 4th, maybe we can double that to 50,000, which would be great. But I, I think people like you are talking about it and you need to come out and see it. And that is the worst, you know, I’ve worked in the tourism industry, basically my entire adult life.


Um, in different places here in Colorado and it is, it’s always the locals who, Oh, I’ve never been there. And usually I’m pretty good at it. My mom and I used to go and play tourists and go to places. But now that I’m all grown up and it doesn’t happen as much as it should. So I am just as guilty as the rest of the locals.


I need to twist your arm to come on up. But one of the things that has been fascinating to me is the number of people who have come in and said to me, wow, I remember coming here with my dad or my grandma when I was a kid. And now it’s so wonderful to have this opportunity to bring my kids or my grandchildren out.


Yeah. And that was particularly relevant over the holidays. I had had so many people tell me that they had in the past come out for a holiday show. And so I looked for a family friendly show that would really be. Suitable for all ages to come in over the holidays. And so I acquired superpower dogs, which is about working dogs all over the world.


It sounds like it’s cartoon and it’s not, but it’s about dogs that do avalanche rescues in Canada or dogs that do water rescues off the coast of Italy. It’s absolutely wonderful. It was the Richmond and IMAX theaters. And so I put on lots of extra shows over the holidays and wanted it to become that tradition again for families to come in.


With the kids and grandkids, and just start that tradition going again, and people really embraced it and have been very, very complimentary about that. Well, I can imagine, I mean, we’re such a dog friendly community here in Colorado Springs and Colorado in general. So I’m sure that, and that would definitely be one for me too.


So they all look super interesting. When I looked at the website, honestly, and part of me wants to see the space one because you know, the stereotypical that sort of planetarium is, but kind of convinced me on the humpback whale. Why? I think that sounds super great and I love dogs, so I’m just going to have to come and see all of them.


Just let me know when you watch come, I’ll be there. Well for every, well, thank you so much, Judy, this has been really awesome. Like I said, I’m really excited that you’re all back and open to the public. And like I said, finding out it was free was certainly a selling point for me. So thank you so much for being with us.


They were so, so excited to have you. Thanks, Colleen. I appreciated the opportunity to share the planetarium with you. Well, that concludes this episode of the Space4U podcast. Keep your eyes and ears open for more Space4U episodes by checking out our social media outlets on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.


And of course our website on all of these outlets it is our goal to inspire, educate, connect, and advocate for the space community, because of the Space Foundation, we will always have space for you. Thank you for listening.

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Space4U Podcast: Judy Cara – Planetarium & STEM Director