Homemade Planetarium Reflects One Man's Dream

Aug 18, 2011

Deep in the North Woods of Wisconsin, more than 200 miles north of Milwaukee, sits the world's largest handmade planetarium.

It isn't easy to find. A sign points down a dirt road toward Frank Kovac's backyard, where he built the planetarium over a period of 10 years. His lifelong fascination with the stars turned into a project of cosmic proportions.

As a child, Kovac looked at the sky through his father's small telescope.

"From that day forward, I wanted to be an astrophysicist, but I was always terrible at math," he says, "so I worked as a storeroom department clerk at the local paper mill."

In 1995 Kovac did a presentation at a local town hall. He was supposed to show a group of Boy Scouts his telescopes.

"It turned out to be a cloudy night, and I thought, I'm going to fix that. I'm going to build a planetarium so we can never cloud out the stars," he says.

His neighbors questioned his ability to build one, given Kovac had no background in engineering.

"And I said, 'Well, I just have an idea. In my mind I can envision this before I even [build] it,'" he says.

The planetarium is about 22 feet wide. Kovac says the globe weighs about 4,000 pounds. When the motor is turned on, the globe rotates and replicates the night sky.

"Every single star is painted with glow-in-the-dark paint, about 5,000 dots, one dot at a time," he says, "and it took me about five months to get every single constellation you see in the Northern Hemisphere."

Only two people came to Kovac's first show.

"I was a little nervous because I was a very shy person. I did terrible. I stuttered too much," he says, "but nobody complained, and now I never tire of giving a show. I almost feel like it's always my first one."

Kovac's father passed away about the year he started building the planetarium. During the building process, Kovac sometimes wondered whether he was going to accomplish his goal and asked himself why he was bothering to work on it.

"And I felt that my dad was there watching over me," he says. "You know, I don't think I have the knowledge to build a planetarium, and here it is — the dream come true."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo.

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