Revisiting The National Planetarium, Kuala Lumpur in 2022

The Hubs and I were looking for things to do over the weekend that didn’t involve a mall (but would still have air conditioning, lol) so like the true nerds we are, we ended up at the National Planetarium (Planetarium Negara) in Kuala Lumpur. My last visit here was solo, and it was almost seven years ago. How time flies!

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Good news? Even after all this time, entrance to the planetarium is still free. Considering how much it would cost to maintain the place and keep it running, I think this is a very generous initiative by our Ministry of Science, Technology, and the Environment.

Video of us mucking about. Subscribe if you haven’t already!

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Most of the exhibits are the same from my previous visit, with a couple of additions. Most notable among them is the “Anti-Gravity Room”. It’s not really ‘anti-gravity’ in that you float around or anything like that, but is more an optical illusion that messes with your balance. Because the chamber is tilted, our brains are unable to process if it’s our body or the items that are supposed to be standing straight – creating a sense of imbalance. The deep blue lighting also adds to the illusion.

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Adding some local flavour to astronomy with cut outs of Malaysian architectural icons
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Malaysia had this whole space fever thing in the late 1990s to early 2000s, the pinnacle of which probably involved sending our first (and to date, only) cosmonaut into space on a Russian space exploration mission.

Sadly, I don’t think there have been many updates in terms of new tech/achievements in space science for the country (or at least, that I am aware of) – and this is reflected in the exhibits at the Planetarium. The takeaway that I would have gotten visiting the planetarium in 2008 would have been exactly the same as what I would get today. In a sense, the museum itself is kind of like a ‘time capsule’, a relic of the massive potential, but unrealized hopes and dreams of a nation.

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One thing I do appreciate is that they have Braille for some of the exhibits, so PWDs can enjoy them too.

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Not sure if it’s a replica (I’m guessing it is, because guests can touch it), but one of the exhibits features the Campo del Cielo, which is a group of iron meteorites that were found in Argentina, believed to date back 4,200 to 4,700 years ago.

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The same periodic table of elements exhibit that was here all those years ago when I first visited: with the addition of some interactive quizzes that you can play on the screens.

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Sample of an astronaut suit. There’s a section here dedicated to Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor – the first Malaysian in space. Sheikh apparently brought Sudirman songs to listen to while on board the Soyuz TMA-11 to the International Space Station. Because he’s Muslim, our religious authorities also came up with a handbook on how to pray in space, including how to determine the direction of Mecca.

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The Ariadne engine, which was used to propel Malaysia’s first satellite (MEASAT) into space, is the highlight of the Planetarium’s exhibitions.

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Space can smell like raspberries. Trivia to tell your friends at your next gathering. But when I do it people stare at me like I have 3 heads, so do so at your own risk.

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Another major highlight at the planetarium is the ‘Space Pod’, which is meant to ‘simulate a ride in space’. Personally, I feel that it’s more of a theme park ride, but hey, whatever keeps people interested and coming. PS: This is a paid experience so you have to shell out RM12+ for it. (I think it was RM12, can’t recall the exact price).

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I wasn’t looking properly during my last visit, but I just realized the English displays are atrocious.

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The Planetarium covers about 11,000 sq feet of space, and there’s an observation tower where you can view the surroundings. Unfortunately this was closed during our visit, so we forked out RM12 per pax to watch a science show in the auditorium instead. This is a theatre with a massive dome-shaped screen, where they play shows in large format. It was a 30-minute presentation on moon, earth and the sun, geared towards families as there were many cartoons and animations incorporated. N and I ended up falling asleep because the dark theatre was like a cozy cocoon and the seats were slightly reclined lol.

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All in all, the visit was enjoyable – but I still left slightly disappointed at the quality of the exhibits. There’s potential, but it’s a far cry from a world-class attraction, and if this is meant to stimulate younger children to gain an interest in space science and technology, let’s just say I don’t think there would be any future astronauts saying “I became an astronaut after my interest was piqued from a visit to the Planetarium”.

That isn’t to say that the trip isn’t worth it. Not many countries in ASEAN have their own public facilities dedicated to space science, and although the National Planetarium is a bit dated, it’s still a fun and relatively engaging experience, especially for families with children. Beats going to the mall anyway. Best of all? It’s free.

PLANETARIUM NEGARA (NATIONAL PLANETARIUM)

Jalan Perdana, Tasik Perdana, 50480 Kuala Lumpur

Opening hours: Daily 9am – 430pm (closed on Mondays)

Phone: 03-2273 4301

https://www.planetariumnegara.gov.my/

Movie Review – Hidden Figures

There are two things that prompt me to write a review immediately after watching a film. Either it’s so terrible/bad I feel impelled to warn others not to waste their money on time or it, or it’s so good that it becomes a duty to share its brilliance.

Thankfully, Hidden Figures is the latter. It is, in my opinion, one of the best films this year – with an actual, inspiring story instead of the insipid garbage Hollywood has been churning out lately (sequels, more superheroes, etc.) Based on a true story, the film highlights the lives of three African-American women working at NASA during the Space Race, and who changed the course of history.

Synopsis: 

It is 1960s America and and the country is competing with Russia in the Space Race, to send the first human being into orbit. At a time where ‘coloured’ groups are fighting for equal rights to live in an integrated society, where ‘whites’ and ‘coloured’ facilities are segregated, the irony is not lost on the audience.

Enter three friends – mathematician Katherine Goble (Taraji P.Henson), unofficial supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and aspiring engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) – African American women working at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The women worked as ‘computers’ in a segregated division of the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, where they did calculations (this was before the computers we use today were invented).

Following a successful Russian satellite launch and increasing pressure to send American astronauts into space, Katherine is roped in to help the Space Task Group, under the direction of Al Harrison. She becomes the first ‘coloured’ woman on the team. If anyone has ever felt out of place somewhere, they can surely relate to Katherine’s first entrance into the office – her white, male colleagues staring at her like a freak show as she makes her way to her desk.

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Aside from dealing with her hostile new colleagues, who are dismissive and demeaning (especially head engineer Paul Stafford), she is also a victim of the era’s racism – after attempting to pour water for her coffee at the communal water dispenser, the next day, a separate pot emerges labelled ‘coloured’. There are also no coloured bathrooms in the new building, resulting in Katherine having to dash half a mile away to her old office in order to use the loo everyday. When director Al questions her, Katherine explodes (in an Oscar-worthy winning performance!), silencing the entire group as they hang their heads in shame, before she leaves with dignity. Back at her old office, Katherine is surprised when Al shows up with a sledge hammer, demolishing the ‘coloured’ bathroom signs and announcing that all toilets would just be toilets. He also allows her into meetings, despite Stafford’s protests. Her contributions enable the group to create an equation to guide the space capsule they were planning to launch into a safe re-entry point. Thanks to her abilities, her colleagues gradually accept her as a part of the team.

Meanwhile, Mary identifies a flaw in the experimental space capsule’s heat shields. Encouraged by her mentor, she decides to pursue an engineering degree and convinces the judge to grant her permission to attend night classes in an all-white school. She later goes on to become NASA’s first female African-American aeronautical engineer.

Dorothy learns of the impending installation of an IBM electronic computer that could replace her co-workers, so she secretly visits the computer room and starts the machine. She visits a public library, where the librarian scolds her for visiting the whites-only section, to borrow a book about Fortran. Another example of the racism in that era: when Dorothy tries to explain that the book she wanted was not available in the coloured section, the librarian says that ‘it’s just the way it is’. She ends up taking the book anyway (in your face, librarian!) and teaches her co-workers how to run the machine. She is officially promoted to supervise the Programming Department, becoming the first African American woman to be appointed as a supervisor.

An epilogue reveals where the three friends are later in life: Katherine married and went on to calculate the trajectories for Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 missions; and she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. The Computational Research Facility at the Langley Research Center was renamed in her honour in 2016.

Verdict: 

After stuff like 50 Shades of Grey or chic flicks where women are either objectified or in constant need of being rescued, Hidden Figures was extremely refreshing and uplifting. The story highlights not just the struggles of being a woman in a male-dominated field/society, but also the challenges faced by the African-American community in a time where racism was rife (and is regressing, looking at world issues today). It is a story of persevering against all odds, of rising above them, and of being brave enough to make changes for the better.

While some events have been dramatized for the big screen and didn’t actually occur to the people the movie is based on, they were good examples of how the African-American community suffered for many years under a segregated, racist regime. The cast delivered superb performances, and I found myself rooting for them and almost clapping at some scenes. Taraji P Hensen’s heartfelt emotions when she yelled at Al practically radiated off the screen: we feel for her, having to put up with people who look down on her, having to work like a dog and spend time away from her family – all these emotions pent up and unleashed after reaching breaking point.

We also cheer for the inspiring successes our characters gain. Mary’s speech to the judge as to why she should be allowed to enrol in an all-white school was something that stuck with me.

“I plan on being an engineer at NASA, but I can’t do that without taking them classes at that all-white high school, and I can’t change the color of my skin. So I have no choice, but to be the first, which I can’t do without you, sir. Your honor, out of all the cases you gon hear today, which one is gon matter hundred years from now? Which one is gon make you the first?”

Other moments: The white supervisor, Mrs Mitchell, who constantly calls Dorothy by her first name, acknowledges her as ‘Mrs Vaughan’ by the end of the film, giving her due respect. Stafford, who at first insists Katherine only ‘type up the report’ and not add her own name to it, finally concedes, seeing as how she has been contributing to the programme.

In short, Hidden Figures is a must watch for its inspiring story, and I think it’s great that they are telling stories that matter, beyond entertainment value. To be honest, I had never known about Katherine and the African-American women at NASA, the first of their kind who paved the way for others to come after. In that sense, the movie title is apt – bringing these hidden figures and their important contributions, to light.

Score: 9/10.