Growing Up at Chabot: 20 Memories of 20 Years

  • Chabot at Large / Sam Burress / August 16, 2020

  • My experience at Chabot Space and Science Center is unique. My dad, Chabot Astronomer Ben Burress, got a job at Chabot in the summer of 1999.

    Chabot was practically a second home to me. My dad would often bring me to work as a child. I was a quiet and easily entertained kid, so I didn’t mind sitting in my dad’s cubicle reading or drawing while he worked. On days Chabot was open, I was allowed to wander the exhibits and see shows in the planetarium and megadome theater. I’m the original Cha-brat, if you will.

    Though Chabot as an educational institution was established in 1883, the current location on Skyline Boulevard opened to the public in 2000.

    In celebration, I would like to share 20 memories from the 20 years at Skyline:


    1. Under Construction

    One of my first memories of Chabot Space and Science Center is from when it was still under construction. It was late morning or maybe early afternoon on a warm and sunny day. My dad brought me along to go on a tour of the new buildings. We donned our hard hats and other safety equipment and entered.

    I remember my dad talking to one of his coworkers while we stood in the rotunda. I was five at the time and naturally not listening to the conversation. My attention was on the space itself. The air smelled like lumber and fresh paint. I looked up to the large skylights in awe. And it wasn’t just the skylights in the rotunda. The skylights in Astronomy Hall seemed impossibly high up.

    The skybridge connecting the two buildings especially delighted me. I never imagined there could be a bridge between buildings. I felt so high up in the air but completely safe in the enclosed walkway.

    I strolled back and forth, watching the activity down below in the amphitheater before moving my attention to the pond on the other side of the courtyard.


    2. The Biology Lab

    In addition to being used for field trips, summer camps, and volunteer trainings, the biology lab was also home to several small animals in various tanks around the room. They were all taken care of by one of the educators, Stan, prior to his retirement. On days I was up at Chabot and the lab was not in use, Stan would let me hang out and help him take care of the animals.

    The animal I was allowed to take out of its tank was a bearded dragon named Herbie. Herbie would cling on to the front of my shirt and hold on tight. I would take Herbie around the museum, usually on days Chabot was closed to the public. There were a few times I took Herbie out of the tank on open days. I would get odd looks from guests, which I didn’t much pay attention to. In hindsight, it must have been strange to see an unattended seven-year-old skipping around the museum with a lizard.

    My absolute favorite animal in the biology lab was a small moray eel. I would spend hours just sitting next to the eel’s tank at the back of the lab, watching it swim around the decorative rocks. I would wiggle my finger close to the glass and the eel would come out from one of the tunnels in the rocks to see what was happening. Realizing that my finger was not prey, it would back up into the tunnel, only to come back out. This was how we would play. Stan would ask if I was bored, but I assured him I wasn’t. Playing with the small moray was genuinely fun for me.


    3. The Smoke Detector System

    When the buildings at Chabot were built the smoke detector system was wired in such a way that, while still fully functional, the announcement speakers emitted a quiet noise. Everyone was told that it was normal and the noise was an indication that the system was working. It was years before a building contractor noticed it and fixed the speaker wiring. And I mean years. It must’ve been when I was in high school or college when the noise stopped.

    The noise itself was strange. It wasn’t a buzz and it wasn’t a hum. I don’t even know how to describe it. But I could imitate it perfectly. Sometimes on days my dad brought me to work I would walk around the cubicles quietly making the sound in time with the speakers. Everyone working at Chabot was able to tune out the noise in the background, but it would be brought to attention when I did this. I sometimes even still go up to my dad and make this sound. He laughs and tries to make it, too.


    4. Camping

    When I was in elementary school, my dad and some of his work friends decided it would be fun to go camping with each other. While this technically did not happen at Chabot, I still consider these trips as part of my Chabot experience. Every six months or so, a group of Chabot staff would pick a place to go camping, and brought their families. Well, other staff would bring their spouses. My dad was the only one at the time with a kid.

    The camping regulars were my dad and Chabotians Eric, Reed, Julie, Tony, and Jim. I always considered these six as the Chabot staff pranksters, so the trips were constantly fun. Sometimes other staff would join if they had the weekend free, like Lisa and Conrad. We spent the trips hiking, stargazing (a given with this crowd), taking silly photos, cooking, and huddled around the campfire listening to Reed and Conrad sing and play guitar.


    5. Russell “Rusty” Schweickart

    My dad used to take me to Chabot staff parties when I was a kid. One time in particular my dad told me there was an astronaut at the party. As a small child with dreams of working at NASA’s mission control (I didn’t have an astronaut phase, I had a mission control phase), I was awed.

    My dad asked if I wanted to meet him and I excitedly said yes. He walked me over to a tall man with stark white hair. The man knelt down to me and introduced himself as Russell Schweickart, and said, “People call me Rusty, because of my red hair.” I looked at him in confusion, too shy to say anything. He just smiled and laughed.


    6. Tony

    I can’t make a list of memories from Chabot without mentioning Tony Idarola.

    For folks unfamiliar with the Challenger Learning Center, also called the CLC, I’ll give a summary. The CLC is a space mission simulation classroom where participants are split into two large groups. One group is assigned to the space craft and the other is at a mission control room of an established Martian base. The simulation has the space craft crew travelling to Mars to relieve the mission control crew, who have been on the planet for months, so they can return home to Earth. Each person has a role, such as communication, navigation, life support, etc. There is one of each role in the space craft and one in the mission control room. The two must communicate with each other to complete role-specific tasks that further the greater mission. Halfway through, the space craft docks with the Martian base and the two large teams switch places. Along the way, the teams may encounter various emergencies and challenges that can only be overcome by everyone working together.

    Various Chabot volunteers and staff help set the scene for the CLC participants and help the teams out when needed. After Chabot Space and Science Center opened, Tony Idarola was the Lead Flight Director of the CLC. He had a fantastic way of inspiring guests of all ages and encouraging them to engage with the simulation roles and tasks. He was working on developing virtual eMissions for teachers to use in their classrooms and had recorded himself in his commander flight suit giving instruction for the steps of each mission.

    Tony was a cherished employee and friend. To me, he was like an uncle.

    Early in the morning on Monday, August 15, 2005, Tony passed away. My dad’s boss, Etta, called us not long after to let us know. That Monday morning I remember coming out of my bedroom and into our living room as Etta’s voice played from our message machine. We were all silent as we listened. It was still dark out, but none of us were able to get back to sleep.

    We had a memorial for Tony at Chabot. We all packed into the megadome. Someone made a memorial video compiled of photos, home video clips, stories about Tony, and parts of his CLC eMission recordings, like bloopers from when he messed up or moved his eyebrows too much. The closing footage of his memorial video was from one of those CLC eMissions. There he was, in his blue flight suit. He smiled and said, “Commander Tony, signing off.” There was not a dry eye in that theater.

    Posted above the door in the CLC mission control room is a informational placard with a picture of Tony in his flight suit and details of the programs he ran there. His office name plate is still on the window outside that door. Sometimes when I walk around the buildings I stand outside of the Challenger Learning Center and think of Tony.


    7. Alone in the Dark

    On days Chabot was closed and my dad had to be at his desk most of the day, I would bring my books and snacks to one of the classrooms. My dad would log on to the classroom computer connected to the projector so I could entertain myself by playing games. (Note to any of the Chabot staff at the time who were confused about the lengthy Neopets internet history: That was me.)

    One of these days my dad helped me set up in the Copernicus classroom. After reading and getting my fill of playing Turmac Roll, I decided to switch to a flash animation web series I discovered. I turned off the lights to make more of a theater setting for the show. Before I could start the video, my mouse cursor began to move on its own. I tried to move the mouse around to regain control, but the cursor continued on its path to the start button on the bottom left of the screen. To my horror, it moved to the Notepad program. I kept moving the mouse around, making the cursor jump between where it was moving and where I was trying to move it to. Then letters began to appear.

    “Hi Sam!” was all it could manage before I closed the program and ran screaming to the corner of the room furthest from the mouse and keyboard. Just a couple minutes later my dad entered the classroom to find me cowering in fear. He laughed as he explained that he opened the remote desktop from his cubicle to say hello to me. I was not amused.


    8. Night at the Museum

    Does anybody remember the movie Night at the Museum? I do, and I have a soft spot for it.

    It’s not because of the movie itself, but because of Chabot. As a special promotional event, Chabot was given a copy of the film to premier before the official release date. The Megadome theater was packed with people munching on popcorn and bundled up in their complimentary embroidered Night at the Museum blankets.

    I remember being appalled by the idea of people eating popcorn and drinking soda in the Megadome until I was told it was allowed for this special event. I look back at this in amusement, as cleaning the theaters after shows became part of my daily job when I started working at the box office. (Please don’t bring food or drink into the planetarium or Megadome. Thank you!)


    9. Mars Exhibit

    One of my favorite exhibits that was ever at Chabot was about Mars. It was filled with hands on and interactive installations relating to the red planet. Guests could plan a mission to Mars, learn about the rocky surface and thin atmosphere, and read about some of the missions actually happening, among many other activities.

    My favorite part of the exhibit was the mini theater. Flanked by red velvet curtains was a large screen showing a loop of clips from old science fiction movies. Some were sci-fi classics, like War of the Worlds, and some were more of cult classics, like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. I used to sit there for hours watching the footage over and over again. While this exhibit was in the museum, my dad always checked the theater first when looked for me.


    10. Meteor Showers

    One of the more regular celestial events hosted at Chabot are meteor shower viewings. Sometimes I went up to Chabot with my parents. We bundled up in many layers and sat on thick blankets on the grassy hillside by the telescope domes.

    One shower was pretty busy with lots of visible meteors. There were many other people on the hill, pointing out the flashes they glimpsed in the sky. While most meteors were only visible for a fraction of a second, there was one that was actually very bright and visible for a good few seconds, illuminating the hill we sat on. There was a distant roar as the rock burned up in the atmosphere above us. Everyone saw it.


    11. The “Purple Hair Incident”

    I loved helping out around the center whenever I could. When I was in elementary school, I was pretty helpful because of my size. I was able to squeeze into small spaces to do manual restarts of exhibit computer programs. I assisted with exhibit installations. I helped blow up balloons for the annual New Year’s Eve balloon drops. I set up for events and parties.

    One time my dad and I were in Astronomy Hall. There was an exhibit piece that dropped dry ice chunks in dyed water to create tails visually similar to comet tails. While this was a mesmerizing piece, it needed to be tended to frequently. Usually the fix was as simple as refilling the internal dry ice container. My dad opened the locked lid and saw that there was still dry ice present, so we looked around to see what the problem might be.

    My dad would blow into the container to momentarily disperse the sublimating carbon dioxide so he could see better. This created a billowing cloud of the gas to spill over the side of the container opening. This attracted the attention of two elementary school aged kids. My dad noticed them and turned to them. I was still looking into the machine.

    “Stand back! It’ll turn your hair purple!” my dad exclaimed. I lifted my head to look at the visitors, who recoiled in shock and took a big step back. I had recently dyed my hair, which the kids did not notice until that moment.

    “I’m only kidding,” my dad smiled. “Her hair was already purple.” The kids still looked worried. It wasn’t until my dad explained that his hair would be purple, too, that the kids seemed to relax and slowly stepped towards the exhibit piece. My dad fixed the machine and we left the guests to watch the dry ice speed around in the water.


    12. Meeting My Lifelong Friend Andrea

    My dad would take me to work on days I had off school and on most weekdays over summer. Since I was going to be there all the time anyway, my parents decided to enroll me in some of the summer camps at Chabot. They ranged in topics and themes and were organized by camper age. Over the years I probably attended most of what was offered.

    When I had reached the middle school age bracket, one of the camps I attended was CSI camp. I was one of the first kids in the biology lab, and after my dad signed me in and returned to his cubicle, I sat at an empty table towards the front of the classroom. I have always been pretty shy and my Chabot know-it-all status would sometimes alienate me from other campers, so I was surprised when another kid came up to my table and quietly asked if she could sit next to me. That’s how I met Andrea. We became fast friends and helped each other out of our shy personalities. While we paid attention in camp and were two of the kids consistently engaged with the activities, we also instigated each other’s chaotic natures.

    Though Andrea and I lived in different cities and went to different schools, we remained close. We both joined the Galaxy Explorers, Chabot’s teen volunteer program. The friendship we formed at Chabot has lasted through the years. I am happy to say that we are both still pursuing our respective dreams in science. Andrea is actually currently working at a lab running samples and collecting data for the Joint Genome Institute, part of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory!


    13. Exploring the Galaxy

    As soon as I was old enough, I joined the Galaxy Explorers. I lead activities around the museum. The one I ran the most was about light waves. For that activity, I provided information about light waves and explained how humans can only see a specific range of waves, the visible light spectrum.

    As a Galaxy Explorer I also helped with special events. Some of the regular shifts I worked were very busy, and others were scarce. Regardless, I value my time spent volunteering. I racked up hundreds of hours in the program.


    14. Summer Camps

    One of my favorite things to do as a Galaxy Explorer (GE) was helping out with summer camps. I helped out with every kind of camp available. I helped set up activities, bring snacks, supervise the campers during shows and hikes, and generally assist with whatever needed doing. Though some of the themes of the camps for middle school students were more interesting, my favorite camps to help with were the ones for second and third graders. I found that that group was generally the most enthusiastic to learn and take part in the activities.

    Usually there was one or two other GEs to each camp, so we had a good team of people helping the camp instructor. As I’m sure anyone who’s worked with youth knows, kids will have favorite people and won’t keep who they like best a secret. This helped us keep track of all the campers. Each GE typically had a small swarm of kids around them.

    At one of the camps I helped with, one of the campers decided that I was her favorite. She always hung around me at snack and lunch time. I asked why she always sat with me and not the other campers. She enthusiastically said that she was like a puppy. This turned into a game, and soon some of the other kids wanted to claim different animals, too.

    On one of our post-lunch hikes, I decided to stay at the back of the group. With the instructor at the front and the other GEs in the middle, we easily kept the group going. Usually on hikes when I was at the back, I would walk with the stragglers. I said that everyone had to be in front of me so I could keep an eye on the group. Sometimes a camper or two would test this out, stopping just ahead of me to see if I would keep going. I always halted and told them to keep moving. Nobody could be behind me. But with this particular group of campers, that proved to be a bit more of a challenge.

    The camper who said she was a puppy wanted to walk with me. Then another camper said he was a kitten, and wanted to walk with me, too. Then there was a pony. And a parrot. And so on. While the campers argued with each other about who got to walk closest to me, the smallest camper jumped out in front of us. With a roar she exclaimed that she was a T-rex, and started stomping around like a raptor. Somehow I managed to get my menagerie back to the classroom in time for afternoon snack.


    15. NASA’s LCROSS

    I was fourteen when Chabot streamed NASA’s Lunar CRater Observing and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission on October 9, 2009. The purpose of LCROSS was to determine whether there were water molecules present in the permanently shadowed craters in the polar regions of the moon. I won’t bore you with the details, so I will sum up. (If you’re interested I highly recommend checking out the mission information on NASA’s website.) Basically, LCROSS was launched with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. LCROSS and the Centaur upper rocket of the Atlas V would detach and impact with the Cabeus crater of one of the moon’s polar regions. The Centaur was to impact first, creating a debris plume above the surface. LCROSS would then fly through the debris and collect and send data back to NASA, before impacting as well.

    Chabot streamed this event in the megadome theater. The actual impact was scheduled to happen at approximately 4:30 in the morning, but the stream would start much earlier to show all the technical lead up to the impact. This was a very niche celestial event. My mom and I woke up around two o’clock. We make a large thermos of black tea to bring to help us stay awake. We went up to Chabot to meet my dad, who had been working since late the night before. There was coffee, tea, and various pastries available for the event guests, also to help keep everyone awake. Having caffeined and sugared up, we all headed into the theater.

    The footage from LCROSS itself was amazing. Not in the quality, as the data had to travel almost a quarter of a million miles to reach us. The frame rate was one image every few seconds. But we all waited with bated breath. In the last few moments before impact we watched as LCROSS grew closer and closer to the Cabeus crater. The Centaur rocket was a small shiny group of pixels, illuminated by the sunlight before entering the permanent shadow. Centaur hit, and the debris showed where it had made impact. The camera of LCROSS showed the smudge of rock and dust and grew closer to the surface. We watched until there was nothing but growing shadow. And then static. We all cheered.


    16. Box Office

    In late August 2018 I was hired as a Visitor Experience Associate at the box office. Between my love of learning new things and my preexisting knowledge of Chabot, I was pretty confident going into my new job. I learned quickly and was eager to help out with more and more tasks.

    I was also fortunate to be part of such a wonderful team. Everyone I’ve worked with since I was hired has brought something different to the table. Our manager, Erick, has been one of the best bosses I’ve had, hands down. As full as his plate was, he made sure to check in with each of us and spend time at the desk with us.

    As with anyone, I grew closer to some of my coworkers than others, but I genuinely enjoyed spending time with each team member. Erick also made sure to arrange group activities so we could get to know each other away from work and do some team building. We’ve gone bowling and mini golfing. Each outing was memorable and filled with laughter.

    In early March 2020 I was offered a promotion to a newly created position. My full title became Membership Lead Associate of Institutional Advancement. While I stayed at the box office, now as one of the leads, I also took on various membership duties as well. Being part of two departments, I had two bosses. Erick for the box office, and Eric for membership.


    17. Gala

    Just a few months after I started working at the box office I was scheduled to work at the gala, Chabot’s annual fundraiser. I also worked the following year’s gala. The gala is a big event where community members gather to mingle, have dinner, and support the center. They can bid on several auction items and experience sets.

    I worked the first shifts of both the 2018 and 2019 galas. I greeted our guests, checked them in, and handed them their event programs. Once the evening’s festivities began, I was able to relax a little and work on some other front desk tasks. After the auction, I helped process the transactions.

    If any of you are reading this, thank you so very much for supporting Chabot Space and Science Center and being so kind and thoughtful. I really, really appreciate it.


    18. Apollo 11 Moon Landing 50th Anniversary

    July 20, 2019 was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the first time humans landed on the moon. As if I needed more of a reason to celebrate, I was also turning 25. I was born on the 25th anniversary of the landing, a fact that I always thought was super cool. So when I was scheduled to work, I was elated for the festivities.

    Our anniversary event schedule was packed with fun activities and talks celebrating the first human moon landing. I wasn’t able to get out from behind the desk much, but I still had a great time greeting our visitors. I had the most fun when groups of people came up and someone excitedly said it was their birthday. I responded that it was my birthday, too! One of the guests even said she was turning 50, and she was actually born as the landing was happening.

    Some people asked me if I was serious when I said I was happy to be working on my birthday. I assured them that I was not being sarcastic. I was legitimately excited to be spending the day with hundreds of other people all celebrating the same thing. My coworkers were glad I brought cake.


    19. Lunar Photography

    For the summer of 2019, in a season-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Chabot Space and Science Center partnered with NASA Ames for a lunar photography exhibit. The walls of Astronomy Hall were lined with stunning, detailed photos of the moon taken from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).

    I was amazed by the quality of the images. The whole summer on days I would carpool to work with my dad, I would pick a different image to study. The stark contrast between the light grey moon dust and rocks with the darker hues, and the deep black shadows was captured so beautifully. The depth of the photographs made me feel like I could reach out and touch the cratered lunar surface. Some of my favorite images were of the lunar polar regions where the sun never reaches the inner surfaces of craters.


    20. Halloween, 2019

    I was scheduled to work on Halloween, 2019. It was a Thursday, which is usually a lighter day in terms of admission. In addition, there weren’t many field trips scheduled for that particular day. The box office lead associates, Andy and Liz, were both given the day off. Instead, our direct manager, Erick, would be at the front with the other scheduled associates and I.

    About a month prior, Liz suggested that those of us working Halloween should have a group costume. She assigned me the task of brainstorming possible costumes. I decided to have fun with it and make a list of joke ideas, mainly to mess with Erick. My plan, however, backfired and Erick loved some of the more ridiculous ideas I mentioned. His favorite was Little Bo Peep and her sheep. We planned for the holiday.

    Halloween rolled around and things didn’t exactly go as we planned. One of the three associates scheduled to work called out sick, so our entire box office staff was Erick, Yvette, and I. Yvette definitely went the cute lamb direction for her costume. I decided to be a black sheep, jokingly calling myself out for never really fitting in. Erick, our Little Bo Peep, was dressed in varying costume pieces Yvette and I brought in the week prior, including a long skirt, blouse, apron, and bonnet. Liz even purchased a prop shepherd’s crook for the full effect.

    The three of us made a ragtag trio, but we had fun with it. The silly costumes were certainly a hit with the few field trip classes came in. A number of the students visiting that day excitedly exclaimed when they saw us welcoming them into the center. Some of them were happily surprised to see three adults in makeshift storybook costumes. Those responses made it all worth it, in my opinion.

    A trip to a museum is always a distinct experience for every person who visits, but I think that my personal familiarity and relationship with Chabot is certainly different from anybody else’s.

    I’ve wandered the buildings. I’ve crawled into spaces few others have. I’ve seen behind the scenes work spanning decades. I grew up at Chabot. I became the person I am today due in part to my life there. So much of my childhood and now my early adult years have been dedicated to this space and the knowledge within.

    There are so many more memories I could share, but I’ll leave it there for now. I hope that my stories have brought a new perspective of the center. My experience is unique, but I love to share what I can. I will always hold Chabot Space and Science Center close to my heart.