Planetarium director soars to new adventures

Andy Pucket will be stepping down as Director of UAA's Planetarium. Photo by Tim Brow
Andy Pucket will be stepping down as Director of UAA’s Planetarium.
Photo by Tim Brow

Andy Puckett proves that you don’t have to be Superman or Buzz Lightyear to fly to infinity and beyond.

As the first full-time director of the UAA Planetarium and Visualization Center, Puckett scoped the glaciers of Mars, he zapped across the galaxy and he fell in love with Venus.

It’s time for him to seek new adventures.

Come July, Puckett will pursue the role as an assistant professor in the department of Earth and Space Sciences at Columbus University in Georgia.

Planetarium junkies say they will miss Puckett. His name has been synonymous with the planetarium since it opened.

“I’m amazed that people want to hear me talk time after time. It’s all the same jokes every time I’m up there,” Puckett said about hosting public shows.

The planetarium boasts a dome-shaped screen with over 12 million pixels — only two other planetariums in the world have a higher resolution projection system. The entertainment hub is an integral part of the community.

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Puckett recalled his involvement when the planetarium was first built and staff he’s worked with through the years. He has also been a professor of astronomy and physics.

“Most of the people that meet him just want him to be their dad. He’s got a very ‘father-esque” quality,’ Charles Rowell, journalism senior and planetarium media designer said about his boss.

Rowell, along with other employees say they appreciate Puckett’s guidance, which is done without hovering.

“I love the freedom I was given to develop my own shows. I don’t think I would’ve had that at other places,” Michelle Wooten, term instructor of physical sciences and Planetarium presenter, said.

Wooten is also leaving UAA and relocating to Tennessee this summer. She will be pursuing a doctorate degree in physics education research at the University of Alabama.

“It’s just one of those weird coincidences,” Wooten said.

Rowell said he was unsure of how everything will pan out when Puckett, who dedicated much time into branding the Planetarium, leaves.

Puckett said the new Planetarium director will be Erin Hicks, a postdoctoral fellow for the astronomy department at the University of Washington.

Hicks said she is excited to get up here to Anchorage and “share the excitement of astronomy with everybody.”

“I can’t remember wanting to do anything else — it’s just been about astronomy since I was young,” Hicks said.

Hicks said her research is focused on galaxy formation and evolution and the roles super-massive black holes play in the process.

Hicks explained that unlike Puckett, who was a full-time director, she will only serve as a part-time director while also assuming a position as a professor for the campus astronomy department.

Puckett will host his final shows at the Planetarium on June 28. He will feature “Two Small Pieces of Glass” about the history of the telescope, his personal favorite and the first show ever to appear on the roster. Puckett will follow up with “Scales of the Universe,” where he will “take people on a tour from Earth out past the whole observable universe and make you feel really small.”

The one show, however, that has created lasting memories for Puckett was the Venus transit viewings shown last June at the Planetarium. Over 700 people flocked to see Venus pass directly in front of the face of the sun for the last time for the next 120 years. Puckett said it was amazing to witness something “our kids will not be alive to witness the next time it happens.”

“Andy’s done so much for UAA and the Planetarium,” Rowell said. “He was also a great teacher and UAA is loosing one of the best professors they’ve ever had.”

Puckett said though the move is positive, it is still bittersweet.

He said he will miss the creative role he’s played as the director of the Planetarium however, he looks forward to devoting his time to his research and his passion of teaching.

“I think the Planetarium is going to be in good hands,” Puckett said. “I think when new people come in they will fall in love with it the way I did.”