The Chabot Space and Science Center at night. Credit: Pete Rosos

Like many of Oakland’s other museums, parks, and cultural centers, Chabot Space and Science Center has been closed since March. But the popular learning center and planetarium, nestled on 13 acres in Redwood Regional Park, has continued to serve Oaklanders with virtual science-based programming.

“When the pandemic first hit, and it was becoming increasingly clear that it was going to have an impact on all of us in the way that it has, we started looking at what our center’s response would be, and how we would adapt our programming,” said Chabot’s executive director, Adam Tobin. Those discussions involved coordination between Chabot and other major cultural institutions in Oakland, including the Oakland Zoo, Children’s Fairyland, and the Oakland Museum of California. “I’m really proud to say that we [Chabot] instigated a fair number of those conversations,” added Tobin.

Chabot made the announcement that it was closing on March 12, and officially closed its doors the following day on March 13, four days before Alameda County’s Public Health officer issued the shelter-in-place order that required most businesses and public attractions to cease operations. “I will never forget that day,” Tobin said. “We were in a senior staff meeting in the morning, and external events had started to accelerate in a way that made it clear that the right thing to do, for the safety of the public and our staff, was to close the museum to general attendance.”

Tobin said early conversations with other Bay Area institutions allowed for a coordinated shutdown that helped protect the community. “In hindsight, as hard and wrenching as that decision was, we feel like we made it in a timely and respectful fashion,” Tobin said. In San Francisco, the Asian Art Museum, de Young Museum, Legion of Honor, and SFMOMA all released a joint closure statement on March 13.

Since its closure, Chabot has been offering events like the virtual telescope viewing every Saturday. Another popular event is “The Sky This Month,” where Chabot astronomers Gerald McKeegan and Don Saito host a gathering and answer questions about constellations, the moon, and other objects in the night sky. For October’s installment, The Oaklandside will join McKeegan, and the Q&A will be live-streamed simultaneously on Chabot’s and The Oaklandside’s Facebook pages on Oct. 16 at 8 p.m. (you can submit your questions ahead of the event using the form below).

Chabot, like Fairyland and the Oakland Zoo, faced financial hardship caused by the pandemic. The center is in a good position now, said Tobin, although getting there required painful staff reductions. “It became clear that we were in this for the long haul. We had lost our primary revenue streams. It was one of the most painful days in my professional career,” he said about having to cut 75% of the center’s staff. Remaining employees also took a pay cut with fewer hours, Tobin said. 

Chabot’s online presence has grown significantly over the past six months. Its free online science content has been viewed over 150,000 times since the pandemic started. Every Wednesday, Chabot science educators hold a virtual event called Live Science in which they recreate a science experiment with a live demonstration. 

They’ve also hosted lectures by members of NASA, SETI Institute, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In July, Chabot hosted NASA aerospace engineer Dr. Lauren Abbott to talk about the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover and all of the technologies the rover used during its Mars trek. 

Chabot will not reopen to the public until June of next year. “We made the decision that the right thing to do for the safety of our staff and visitors was not to try to reopen too soon,” Tobin said. 

Meanwhile, staff members are working on a vision for what a post-pandemic grand re-opening will look like, which includes new educational activities and exhibits. “We see this as an opportunity to strengthen Chabot,” Tobin said. 

In addition, they are keeping track of how other local institutions are managing to get by on limited attendance and with changing COVID-19 guidelines. 

“We’re a science education institution. We are doing our best to follow the science as best as we can and comply with the guidelines of health agencies,” said Tobin. At Chabot, a majority of the exhibits are indoors and interactive, whereas other institutions like Fairyland and the Oakland Zoo have more outdoor space, making it easier to comply with the COVID-19 guidelines.

As Chabot Space and Science Center continue re-imagining its offerings, Tobin said he is confident that a pandemic will not dim the center’s 137 years providing science education.

“This is giving us time to really be thoughtful and focus the right amount of energy on how we emerge successfully,” Tobin said. “We are going to come out on the other side, strong. I cannot think of a more important thing than the love and support of the community that we are so lucky to have.”

Correction: Chabot Space and Science Center officially closed its doors to the public on March 13. Also, NASA and SETI are separate organizations.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.