Since Christmas 1968, when Apollo 8 beamed home the photograph known as "Earthrise," billions have dreamed of beholding our planet the way the early astronauts did, as a blue marble floating in boundless immensity over the bleak horizon of our barren moon. A cinematic space odyssey like Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity" caters to that yearning. But on the cosmic scale, the moon is at our fingertips. Since 2008, visitors to the Big Island of Hawaii have been taking virtual plunges far, far deeper into the unknown. The Cape Canaveral for these excursions is Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii, home to the first planetarium in the world—and still the only one in the U.S.—to offer movies and live projection in full-dome 3-D. (The count of 3-D planetariums now stands at more than a dozen, in countries including Brazil, China, Germany, India, Japan, Poland and Spain.)
The man who brought the third dimension into the dome of Imiloa is Shawn Laatsch, a very hands-on virtuoso in interactive software. "In our live '3-D Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe,' we take you from Earth to the edge of the known cosmos," Mr. Laatsch told me last summer before launching into what only he at the time knew would prove to be something very like a farewell performance. The drill was easy: Slip on the oversize glasses with their reflective lenses, sit way back in your luxuriously upholstered lounge chair, don't even think about a seat belt, and blast off. Traced by the concentric orbits of the planets, our solar system hung in the void as a razor-thin disc, wheeling from the horizontal to the vertical as we soared free in quest of supernovas, pulsars and black holes.
"We don't try to smack people in the face with big effects," Mr. Laatsch said. "We want you to feel great depth, to give a sense of reality that is unique and special." What he calls the "real-time fly-out" feels restful yet intense, and startlingly lifelike.
Imiloa, on the University of Hawaii at Hilo campus, bills itself as a place where astronomy meets Hawaiian culture. The name is from the Hawaiian, meaning "to seek far," hence "to explore." But, in truth, connections are not far to seek at all. Great stargazers as well as and great seafarers, the Polynesians who settled Hawaii brought forth likely the most skilled natural navigators in human history. Incompatible as their mythology and contemporary science may seem to some, both at their core concern themselves with cosmology, with origins and last things. Permanent exhibits in galleries adjacent to the planetarium lay out but do not force the connections.
The Imiloa complex nestles on the green slopes above the Hilo waterfront, where clocks seem pretty much to have stopped in the Age of Woodstock. The roofline, dominated by three shiny titanium cones, symbolizes the volcanoes Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa and Hualalai. Mauna Kea, the highest, rises 14,000 feet above sea level, where it occasionally catches a dusting of snow. (This winter, meteorologists reported accumulations of up to 8 inches.) The Hawaiians hold the summit sacred—and so, after their fashion, do Western astronomers, who have built an international sky city there, boasting an unmatched concentration of 13 high-power telescopes.
Shortly after we spoke, word leaked that the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, had just hired Mr. Laatsch away as executive director of Infoversum, a domed facility devoted to art, culture, science and business, opening in June of this year. A successor at Imiloa has yet to be named. But the team Mr. Laatsch knew—the astronomers, the educators, the dreadnought cyberpilots—keeps forging ahead. Nothing stands still. The adventure continues.