Published Wednesday, March 31, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News


 Mercury News Staff Columnist

 HOPKINS Junior High science teacher Melanie Yee once told her students she had to ``set up the stars for tonight.''
One student wondered about that and asked, ``Isn't that God's job?''
At Hopkins, it's Yee's job.

 She is the boss at the school's planetarium, which has been in operation since the early 1960s.

 When it was built, the facility was the only junior high school planetarium west of the Mississippi.

 But it has had its highs and its lows. Vandals destroyed it in 1980. And it has had perennial money problems.

 The Candle Lighters, a group that raises money for community organizationsby holding an annual ghost house at the Fremont Hub shopping center, contributed $13,000 to fix it up in 1980.

 Now, a non-profit Fremont education group has adopted the planetarium, with plans to upgrade it and open the skies to the public.

 ``We want to turn it into a community facility,'' said Michael Salvaggio, a board member of Math/Science Nucleus, a Fremont outfit that helps teachers get science resources into the classroom.

 The planetarium is an awesome place. Make that a wowsome place. When Ivisited, the most common expression from a group of fourth-graders was,``Wow!''

 There are 74 seats in the planetarium, with a giant white dome above. A Spitz A3P star projector provides the stars, while an array of slide projectors show close-ups of the heavenly bodies.

In the dark, behind the scenes, Yee, like a latter-day Wizard of Oz, prowled thecontrol panel, moving stars, galaxies, quasars, asteroids and comets, hitting control buttons and racing back and forth along the panel to keep the show going.

 All this time, the tour guide to the homes of the stars narrated the show.

 She called up planets and comets at will.

She moved the stars around.

 With a flip of the switch, she can bring light. She can run time forward or backward. On the seventh day she rested. While the importance of the planetarium seems obvious, there wasn't enough money to upgrade it with information gleaned from recent space flights. For example, Salvaggio said, it needs to be computerized. In all, he said, Math/Science Nucleus is looking for about $500,000 to redo the planetarium. The group hopes to raise some of the money with memberships in Friends of the Planetarium. Individual memberships are $15; family, $25; family sponsor, $100; and corporate sponsor, $500. The money will be used for upkeep, staffing, programs and transportation of students from other schools to Hopkins. The benefits of membership include discounted rates for shows and classes, notification of events and progress reports on the planetarium. If you'd like to check this out, you're invited to an open house at the planetarium from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Thursday. The school is at 600 Driscoll Road. The plan is that programs will be open to the public starting May 1. For reservations or more information, call Sandee Strong at (510) 790-6284 or e-mail her at Hopkins got into the planetarium business because of the National DefenseEducation Act, passed in 1958 after the Soviet Union launched the Sputniksatellite. The feds provided matching funds to foster science in local school. Hopkins raised $25,000 for the $50,000 facility. If you can't make it to a planetarium, I have some advice for you, if it's starsyou're looking for. Go out in the back yard tonight and lie on your back. See? By the way, that red dot below the moon? That's Mars.