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WHEN VON DEL Chamberlain was a child growing up in Kanab, he used to lie outside in his yard watching the stars.

The sky was so dark in that southern Utah region that the Milky Way stretched overhead in a vast arc and the stars shone brilliantly. The boy was struck by "the immensity of it all . . . wondering about what it all meant, what the stars were and how they got there."He speculated about how far away they were, how big it all was.

That feeling of awe stayed with him throughout his career as one of the country's top planetarium experts. Last week, at 62, Chamberlain retired as director of Hansen Planetarium, though he will continue to write "Looking Around," his twice-monthly column about astronomy and science, for the Deseret News.

If anything, his sense of wonder deepened as Chamberlain learned more and more about the world and the heavens. He studied American Indian legends about astronomy and weather, publishing a book about Pawnee Indian cosmology; he even learned to play Plains Indian flutes. He is fascinated by everything from atomic reactions to stars to geology.

His interests are reflected in his curriculum vitae: Chamberlain is the author of books, articles, bulletins, columns and more than 50 professional and scientific papers. His photographs of the night sky have been printed in journals, magazines, books and on an album cover. They have been used in films and filmstrips.

One of the turning points of his life came in 1945, when he happened to accompany his father to Salt Lake City.

"I was crossing the street - I tend to think it was right up the street, this intersection here," he said, pointing out a window of Hansen Planetarium. Quickly, with his trademark frankness, he added, "but I really can't say for sure."

While going across the street he heard a radio broadcast about the atomic bombing of Japan. He was amazed that man had harnessed the atom and became intensely interested in the new technology.

At the University of Utah, Chamberlain studied physics, learning about atomic reactions, graduating with honors in 1958. Then came another turning point: He grew interested in the atomic reactions taking place within stars, including our own sun.

He was serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in California. On a free day he visited Lick Observatory near San Jose, and he purchased a high-quality picture book about astronomy.

"Physics is the basic foundation in astronomy," he said. The book fascinated him, and the cosmology inherent in astronomy chimed with his own religious feelings.

"It always intrigued me, the big questions - are we lonely in the universe? And where else might life be found? I'm still intrigued on that," he said.

He attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, earning his master's degree in astronomy in 1960.

"I was planning on a Ph.D.," he said. Quickly answering the unasked question, he added, "I ran out of funds."

Chamberlain took a job at the Robert T. Longway Planetarium in Flint, Mich., as a staff astronomer. From there, he went to the Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University, Ann Arbor, eventually becoming director.

While at Abrams, from 1969-73, he became concerned that "there was no planetarium organization going. There was a group that met informally," but planetarium professionals had no organized forum.

He was instrumental in founding the Conference of American Planetarium Educators, which met in East Lansing in 1970 to consider establishing at least a national organization. What resulted was the International Planetarium Society.

"It is the society for planetarium professionals," he said. Today the group includes professionals from the United States, Mexico, Canada and overseas. Its membership fluctuates, sometimes reaching 400.

In 1973, Chamberlain moved to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He was chief of the education and presentations divisions and an astronomer in the space science and exploration department, National Air and Space Museum.

He was in charge of the IMAX theater, the Albert Einstein Planetarium and the museum's education program. He also launched the American Astronomical Society's "Astronomy in the Parks" program, in which rangers and astronomers help explain the night sky to visitors.

During his stints at Abrams and the Smithsonian, Chamberlain wrote more than a dozen planetarium star programs, from "The Milky Way, A River of Light" to "Footprints on the Moon" and "Journey through the Universe."

That expertise, plus his Utah roots, made Chamberlain a natural for the job when Hansen Planetarium needed a new director. The year was 1984, and Mark Littmann had just left as director, leaving a rich legacy of star programs produced at the planetarium.

Chamberlain "felt good about coming back," he said.

"Financially, I shouldn't have. . . . I probably would be retiring even earlier and been much better off" had he stayed at the Smithsonian.

But the chance to return to his native state was too good to pass up. He had followed Hansen Planetarium's activities since it was created in 1966, and he knew it had an impressive track record. Chamberlain would face a big challenge in continuing its tradition of creating planetarium programs and other services.

Also, he said, "I really wanted to feel I had a chance to give a little back to this state."

He got to work immediately upon his return, producing a program, "Once Upon a Starry Night," that premiered that fall.

"What I'm most proud of is the constantly high-quality science education series" that Hansen Planetarium has produced, he said. It has introduced literally millions of people around the world to the wonder of astronomy.

For the planetarium's 30th anniversary this year, Chamberlain calculated that Hansen Planetarium programs and teaching materials - produced both before and during his directorship - had reached 70 million people. That doesn't include the countless thousands who have bought Hansen Planetarium posters and slides.

"You see our posters all over," he said. "Our posters hang in hogans of medicine men."

The Navajos have a special interest in astronomy and the weather, particularly features like the Pleiades star cluster and the Milky Way.

The posters have also been glimpsed on everything from Disney World rides to the television comedy "Alf," which was about a Muppet-like alien.

What about aliens, anyway? Are they out there? "I have a very definite leaning toward the idea we are not alone. To me it seems almost preposterous to feel we are the only place in the universe with life. There are so many stars," and probably other planets, Chamberlain said.

"I think it's just very likely there are other places where life is found. Yet they might be sparse." Inhabited planets are probably rare and far apart, he suspects.

Looking back over his work at Hansen Planetarium, Chamberlain is proud of the high-caliber specialists who have come to Utah to collaborate on star shows. Most notable among them was the world-famous cosmologist Stephen Hawking.

Other highlights are public events the planetarium organized, ranging from Hawking speeches to regular star parties, to special viewings of eclipses and comets.

When Halley's Comet returned in 1986, the planetarium sponsored a comet watch party at Little Mountain near Salt Lake City. "The population of Little Mountain was higher for a few hours early in March" that year than ever before or since, he recalled.

Also, the planetarium has helped many enjoy "some wonderful eclipses," both of the sun and the moon. Then there was the recent appearance of Comet Hyakutake, "the most classic" comet he's seen since he started observing in 1957.

Now that he has retired, he will probably keep on lecturing about the night sky on cruise ships. He'll definitely continue to study geology.

And he'll learn more concerning Indian traditions about astronomy and the Earth. It's a safe bet that Chamberlain will camp in his beloved southern Utah red-rock country and play the Indian-style flute that planetarium staff members gave him upon his retirement.

Will he take with him that sense of awe he had as a boy in Kanab? "Indeed, even more so," he said.

"The wonder of the Earth, and its smallness, and its beauty, and its significance . . . it's kind of overwhelming to me, in view of the vastness of the universe," he said.