Mueller Planetarium

Mueller Planetarium Celebrates Nearly 60 Years of Exploring the Universe

Mueller Planetarium was born out of the space race. In 1957, the then Soviet Union launched the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1. On July 15 of that same year, ground-breaking took place on the Ralph Mueller Planetarium - Theatre of the Stars.

Ground-breaking ceremony on July 15, 1957, for the new planetarium. University of Nebraska Chancellor Clifford M. Hardin turned the first spadeful of dirt. Watching the ceremony are (from left): Mr. Perry W. Branch, University Foundation Secretary-Director; Mr. W. W. Putney, Foundation President; Dr. C. Bertrand Schultz, Museum Director; and Dr. Gilbert Lueninghoener of Midland College (Fremont).

The planetarium was a gift from Cleveland industrialist Ralph S. Mueller. Mueller came to the University of Nebraska in 1894. At the time there was no tuition charged, aside from a $5 fee and lab charges. Mueller originally intended to study medicine, but the allure of the fast growing electronics field proved too great. He graduated from the University in 1898 with a degree in electrical engineering and went on to a long and successful career in the field, including founding the Mueller Electric Company in 1908 and inventing the alligator clip, which is still in use today. "Young people just naturally take for granted everything that is done for them. I was not even a resident of Nebraska but for a five dollar matriculation fee the State of Nebraska gave me my education which I promptly carried away with me to use in other states. I later came to realize that the tax payers of Nebraska had been very generous to me. Unquestionably my education helped fortune to smile on me and so, in an effort to balance the account I have, thru the years, chipped in practically every time Nebraska has passed the hat. In addition I have sponsored three major projects of my own." Those three major projects were the Health Science Galleries, Carillon Bell Tower (which still stands to the west of the museum) and the Planetarium.

Listen to Ralph Mueller's comments at the dedication of the planetarium:

Construction continued on the planetarium during 1957. The Ralph Mueller Planetarium was officially dedicated on March 23, 1958. It was the first planetarium in the state of Nebraska. During the first six months of operation, over twenty thousand people attended shows in the new theater. Visitors came from as far away as Iowa, Kansas and Missouri (a long way back in 1958!). Early shows included "Planets and Satellites," "Summer Skies," and "The Skies of Autumn." The first persons to operate the new planetarium were graduate students in geology (not astronomers) who worked in the state Museum building. One notable example was Lloyd Tanner who completed his Ph.D. in geology and became one of the mainstays of Museum research. Dr. Gilbert Lueninghoener of Midland College provided a lot of consulting on the operation of the new planetarium. Lueninghoener had regularly conducted geologic research with UNL researchers including Museum Director Schultz, and had studied a number of planetarium designs across the country.

The planetarium lobby as it appeared in 1958.

The original planetarium projector was the Spitz Laboratories model A2. Early planetariums were only in large cities that could afford the large projectors made by Zeiss Optical Works in Germany. Armand Spitz, who had once worked in a Zeiss Planetarium, felt it a shame a planetarium could be enjoyed only where some philanthropist donated a huge sum to purchase and house a Zeiss instrument. He established an American company which produced smaller, less expensive projectors for schools, universities and museums. Spitz created a very functional and effective teaching tool. The first Spitz Model A projector sold for only $500 in 1947, which translates into less than $5000 in today's dollars. The initial model had no planet projectors and a console located below the projector. Spitz soon realized that a console located to the side of the room would give the lecturer/operator more room and flexibility. Thus a separate console became the standard and provided for sound system and lighting control. The planetarium's A2 projector was one of the first of these new designs.

The original Spitz A2 projector and control system used in the planetarium from 1958-1970.

The early days of Mueller Planetarium saw introductory programs about the current sky. It would have been difficult to do anything else. As magical as the idea of seeing stars indoors during the daytime was, the technology didn't allow much more. A lecturer could point out stars and constellations - and that was it. The only music used was at the beginning and end of a lecture. Early lantern slides could illustrate a lecture, but such projectors were noisy, bulky and produced a lot of heat. In the '60s, slide projectors were introduced with possibly one or two projectors used per show.

In March of 1970, the original Spitz A2 projector was upgraded using funds from Ralph Mueller to the new Spitz A-4. This projector displayed 1,354 individual stars as well as the moon, sun, naked-eye planets, the Milky Way and several star clusters and galaxies. The new projector allowed for mechanical control of the motions of planets and stars including the earth's precession, a slow 26,000 year shift in the sky. Another new feature was an elevator which allows the projector to be lowered out of the way of audience view - a tremendous bonus for special presentations (lectures and events) in the planetarium. It was in the A-4 that planetarium star projectors first used transistors and circuit boards!

The planetarium's upgraded control and sound system in 1972.

Jack Dunn became the Planetarium Director in 1971. He had been an undergraduate student of Dr. Gilbert Lueninghoener and brought some of his new ideas. He was also the first person trained with an astronomy background to operate the planetarium. He set about establishing relations with astronomers on campus such as Dr. Kam Leung who later helped initiate the building of the University's Behlen Observatory. Planetariums in some cities had experimented with recorded soundtracks, featuring sound effects, music and narration. While at Midland working with Lueninghoener, Dunn had created a soundtrack for a slide show featuring Lueninghoener's photography of the Grand Canyon. Along with the music, Dunn mixed the sounds of a giant thunderstorm. In one of his first new shows at Mueller, Dunn got the idea of adding a thunderstorm to a program about the prairie skies. The stars went out and lighting from a crude mechanism shuttering special slides flashed across the sky. Dunn initiated the first recorded shows at Mueller which consisted of soundtrack music and recorded narration, usually also incorporating a live presentation segment. The planetarium's sound system was upgraded to include 4 channel sound, a stereo cassette deck with the then new Dolby Noise Reduction System and a six channel mixer. This may sound quaint by today's standards, but in the early '70s it was truly cutting edge technology. Most "special effects" had to be built in-house. There were no general manufacturers of such projectors.

This projector was built in the '70s by UNL student Larry Stepp. Stepp went on to design major optical systems for the Gemini Observatories and National Optical Astronomical Observatories (NOAO).

In 1977, Mueller Planetarium presented the first laser light show seen in Nebraska. Lawrence Goodridge, of the Cincinnati Art Institute, brought his "Laserworks" show to the planetarium for two weekends. No computer control was used and most of the show was performed live by Goodridge and his wife Carol. The laser system utilized a helium-neon and an argon laser to produce a two color (red and cyan) laser show.

A variety of additional lighting effect projectors supported the lasers. The shows sold out instantly and were so popular that Laserworks returned in 1979. This inspired the planetarium to begin experimenting with its own helium-neon based shows in the early 80's, as well as performances from other outside companies.

Lawrence Goodridge at the controls of the Laserworks projector.

The popularity of the laser shows inspired the planetarium to seek a way to do their own full-color shows. In 1984, it began producing its own in-house multicolor laser shows, going from two colors initially, to five in 1987, to 16.8 million in 1992. Multiple slide imagery, other special effects and later video often accompanied the laser in interpreting music. Multi-colored Laser shows evolved as an art form with the introduction of computers to depict specific concrete images. The biggest audiences for the shows were University students, but the planetarium also pioneered doing all-ages family laser shows as matinees. Mueller Planetarium hosted the International Laser Display Association annual conference and awards twice, once in 1994 and again in 1997. It is only one of two planetariums to ever host a conference of the largest laser display organization in the world. The planetarium also produced the programming for the 1994 Husker Football National Championship Celebration in Memorial Stadium and played a role in the downtown Lincoln millennium laser show festivities.

The Huskers' 1994 AFCA National Championship Trophy illuminated by laser light.

In 1987, in addition to upgrading the laser system, the planetarium also installed a new state of the art sound system as well as replacing the seating. The original theater had seats facing the center of the room, following the layout of the first planetariums in Germany. This was not a result of an optimum design for the audience to see the sky. Rather, the German originators of the planetarium were part of a technocracy - they were really proud of their machines. The idea in the first planetariums was that the machinery was just as important as the sky. It was in the late 1960's that American pioneers like Lueninghoener came up with the then new concept of putting the emphasis on the sky. To do this, they designed planetariums with the seats all facing one direction. Now the entire audience had the same perspective. If an image were projected of a new planet photo or diagram, the entire audience would see it correctly instead of half seeing it upside-down. Mueller converted to this idea of "unidirectional" seating as a part of the 1987 renovation.

An ensemble of UNL students performs music composed by astronomers in a special concert at the planetarium.

Over the years Mueller Planetarium has played host to numerous special events and guest speakers. In 1982 the planetarium featured "Ogden's Trial By Magic" with magician Tom Ogden, a live multimedia magic show utilizing many of the planetarium's effects. Jack Horkheimer, host of PBS television's "Star Gazer" series spoke at the planetarium in 1986. In 1992 and again in 2004 it featured live concerts from nationally known synthesist Jonn Serrie. In 2002, "Music of the Stars," a live classical music concert of works composed by astronomers and performed by an ensemble of UNL students took place. Renowned space artist Joe Tucciarone's gallery show entitled "Visions of the Universe" came to the lobby of the planetarium in 1997. Two 48-foot trailers featuring a traveling exhibit of a full-scale mockup of the International Space Station's U.S. Laboratory came to the planetarium in 1996. The planetarium has been the site of several proposals of marriage, one wedding and a governor's town hall meeting on the environment.

From left to right: NASA exhibit staffer Jennifer Cantrell explains one of the science racks aboard a full-scale mock-up of the International Space Station's U.S. Laboratory; "Star Gazer" Jack Horkheimer; Synthesist Jonn Serrie; then Nebraska governor Ben Nelson and planetarium director Jack Dunn at the governor's town hall meeting on the environment, hosted by the planetarium.

Over the years several astronauts and distinguished engineers from NASA have spoken at Mueller Planetarium. Apollo moonwalkers Edgar Mitchell (Apollo 14) and Alan Bean (Apollo 12, Skylab 3), Skylab and Shuttle Astronaut Jack Lousma (Skylab 3, STS-3), and Shuttle Astronauts Steven Hawley (STS-41D, STS-61C, STS-31, STS-82 STS-93), Ken Cockrell (STS-56, STS-69, STS-80, STS-98, STS-111) and Clayton Anderson (STS-117, ISS Expedition 15, STS-120 - Nebraska's first astronaut) were speakers at events. Nagin Cox, Deputy Team Chief of the Spacecraft Rover Engineering Team for the Mars Spirit and Opportunity rovers and Rob Landis, Johnson Space Center flight controller and engineer and Russian space expert both spoke at the planetarium.

Many astronauts have visited Mueller Planetarium over the years. From left to right: Edgar Mitchell, Alan Bean, Jack Lousma, Steven Hawley, Ken Cockrell and Clayton Anderson.

In the 1980s Mueller Planetarium began a partnership with the Prairie Astronomy Club of Lincoln in celebrating National Astronomy Day in the Museum. Astronomy Day is a national event started by the Astronomical League of amateur Astronomy clubs in the '70s. After the turn of the century, Mueller was one of the earliest to sign on to receive sponsorship for Astronomy Day with "Astronomy Magazine" and Meade Telescopes. This partnership continues today as a celebration of both amateur and professional astronomy and aerospace education.

Various Astronomy Day displays.

Today, Mueller Planetarium continues Ralph Mueller's spirit of staying at the forefront of technology by advancing into the digital age with fulldome video projection. The first experiments with digital projection in Planetariums started in the mid-1990s. Covering the entire planetarium dome with an image that didn't use film opened up entirely new possibilities. In the new millennium, Jack Dunn became the US collaborator with Paul Bourke at University of Western Australia's Supercomputing Program. Bourke invented a system of projecting digital images over the entire dome using a spherical mirror and specialized software.

The planetarium's fulldome digital projection system.

Thanks to a donation from the Friends of the Museum, Mueller Planetarium was able to purchase the components to assemble such a projection system, as well as upgrade its sound system to full modern digital surround sound. Digital fulldome shows began in the summer of 2007. The process opens up many new possibilities for programming in arts and sciences going far beyond astronomy.

Mirage 3d's "Origins of Life" on the planetarium dome

The planetarium continues to operate, funded mainly by admissions and gifts and donations. As we have entered the new digital age, our universe can only get more interesting. With new technologies such as the internet bombarding the public with more and more information, the Planetarium must continue to provide an environment and an experience an individual can't achieve by just checking out a web page. Fulldome immersive shows provide just such a unique experience. We've come a long way from pointing out a few stars on a static sky. There is so much to learn and know above just seeing the "Big Dipper." In 60 years, humanity's knowledge of the Universe has reached beyond our wildest dreams. With Mueller Planetarium, the dreams and the learning continue.

The planetarium lobby as it is today.

Mueller Planetarium Through The Years

The original configuration of the theater in the '50s and '60s.

The theater in the '70s with a star projector upgrade.

The theater in the late '80s and '90s with new unidirectional seating

Mueller Planetarium as it is today, with full-dome digital video projection.