Farewell to the Zeiss Planetarium Projector

Since its opening, and until recent years, our Zeiss Model VIa optical planetarium projector has brought the wonder of the night sky to countless visitors. The Zeiss Company no longer services the over 40 year-old model, and though its stars are as sharp as ever, and its skies deep in their dramatic blackness, its celestial motors have become weary, so it has been retired in favor of an ever-improving digital projection system that offers many advantages to meet modern programming needs. The Albert Einstein Planetarium theater itself is also closing as our multi-year renovation progresses through the Museum, but it will eventually reopen as a fully digital experience. Now that we have said goodbye to its original projector, the Zeiss Model VIa, the question is, of course, how did it get here?

Zeiss Projector in the Albert Einstein Planetarium at the National Air and Space Museum, weeks before being deinstalled.
Zeiss Projector in the Albert Einstein Planetarium at the National Air and Space Museum, weeks before being deinstalled.

Whither a Planetarium for Washington, DC?

In the 1920s, the Zeiss Company of Jena, Germany, created a new and very immersive way to explore the night sky using precision motorized optical projection against a large interior domed screen. As part of its campaign to place these projectors in the world’s capitals, Zeiss contacted the Smithsonian Institution in 1927, offering to help find the means to install one on the National Mall. The Smithsonian was unable to respond positively then, and reluctantly continued to resist other entreaties through the 1930s to the late 1950s. It simply had other priorities. Meanwhile other groups in the Washington area, ranging from a prominent restaurant owner to a group of educationally minded aerospace promoters, campaigned to establish a major planetarium in Washington.

In 1958, responding to efforts to revitalize the Southwest waterfront of the District of Columbia, the owners of the classic Hogate’s Restaurant announced plans to build a large planetarium as a “magnet for tourists” that would also fill a long-felt need for such an educational facility. The planetarium would complement their restaurant, and its owners, Joseph K. and Watson B. Rulon indicated that they would eventually propose the planetarium as a gift to the Smithsonian to expand its presence on the “South Mall.”

Article in the December 28, 1958, edition of The Sunday Star about the proposed waterfront planetarium offered to the Smithsonian. Proquest Historical Newspapers

Although nothing came of this gesture, a loose consortium of civilians soon revived the idea in the early 1960s, orchestrated by Herman S. Weinstein, a local educational entrepreneur. Weinstein raised the idea with Father Francis Heyden, the revered astronomer-educator at Georgetown University, and, bolstered by the Soviet satellite Sputnik, spearheaded a blue-ribbon campaign starting in 1961 that included luminaries such as nuclear physicist Edward Teller, Harvard astronomer Donald Menzel, Caltech aerodynamicist Theodore van Karman, space scientist S. Fred Singer, famed aviator Lt. Gen. James Doolittle and aviation pioneer Jacqueline Cochrane.

Their stated goal was to build the largest planetarium and space center in the world under an 85-foot domed chamber. About 2 feet larger than the Soviet's Moscow Planetarium dome; the "Washington Planetarium and Space Center" would rectify the embarrassment of Washington being the only major world capital without a planetarium. They developed all sorts of plans ranging from a sweeping flying saucer-shaped structure on Daingerfield Island, south of National Airport; an Air Force Association-sponsored planetarium across the Potomac from the Lincoln Memorial; a planetarium in East Potomac Park; or even an entertainment and education complex on 12th Street SW.

Article in the Washington Post on May 11, 1962, about one of several proposals for a new “Washington Planetarium and Space Center” on Dangerfield Island. Proquest Historical Newspapers

In 1964, when he became Smithsonian Secretary, S. Dillon Ripley accepted an invitation to join the Washington Planetarium and Space Center's Executive Board, so he could keep in touch with the slow but persistent efforts of the planetarium initiative. In early 1965, when the prospect of Air Force funding seemed strong through the agency of Cochrane and the Air Force Association, Ripley and Melvin Payne of the National Geographic Society did what they could to encourage the liaison. Ripley delegated staff to monitor progress of the planetarium group. Soon there was a name change when the Executive Board agreed to call it the "National Air Force Planetarium and Space Center" with the understanding that it would be a true national planetarium in the broadest possible sense, more than an Air Force-centered facility.

The Air Force remained the Center's best hope for quite some time. Despite continued grassroots attention, despite Jackie Cochrane's marshalling of Camp Fire Girls to raise funds and her more hopeful efforts securing Bob Hope for a television special to announce the fund drive for the planetarium, despite kind words from Vice President Lyndon Johnson (he declined to be on the Board) and despite the good wishes of official Washington, fund raising remained way below expectations.

Negotiations between the Board and the Air Force Association broke down finally in late 1965, and by January 1966, a new Educational Advisory Committee emerged that included university and college presidents from all major institutions throughout the Washington area. Ripley and Payne continued to watch the deliberations carefully. Ripley asked his chief assistant, James Bradley, to attend the educational meetings, and take with him either the curator of meteoritics from the National Museum of Natural History or even an astronomer from the Smithsonian's Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in Cambridge to provide gravitas.

At the same time, as Ripley keenly knew, long-term plans for a National Air Museum had taken on new life in response to efforts by Senators Barry Goldwater and Clayborn Pell, and “Space” was added to its venue. As a result, the Space Center's Board started thinking about giving over the planetarium to the Smithsonian. In September 1967, they formally approached the Smithsonian and Ripley indeed indicated that he would entertain their proposal as long as the Space Center incorporated the themes of the National Air and Space Museum and that the present Board would be willing to help the Smithsonian "along the path toward Congressional fiscal approval, just as I believe our cultivating the giants of the aerospace world would." [Ripley to Bradley et al 21 September 1967 RU 99, Box 59 1967 folder]

Thus the two Space Age initiatives, The National Air and Space Museum and a national planetarium, came together. Each needed the other. But there were still numerous competing design alternatives. At one point, consultants were engaged who proposed that the dome of the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum be filled with a planetarium. But with a true National Air and Space Museum now promised, a planetarium became a critical part of the planning.

In the late 1960s, Ripley was considering the option of placing a planetarium inside the present dome of the National Museum of Natural History. These options were soon combined into a site within the National Air and Space Museum. Smithsonian Institution Archives Record Unit 356 Box 4 Folder “Pre-Spacearium.” Smithsonian Institution Archives

In late 1969, however, the original Air and Space design authorized in 1966 was 20 percent over budget and so the entire building was redesigned. It also had to be re-sold, both to Congress and to the public. This led Ripley’s advisors to emphasize once again that the redesign had to include a planetarium to put it “in a good position to begin a public campaign to solicit support." No major redesign was required, just an enclosed rectangular space, and no extra funding.

Indeed, by the 1960s, the canonical image of a visible dome dominating a planetarium facility had weakened in favor of the considerably more versatile and economical idea of filling a pre-existing space with a suspended, acoustically transparent dome. Once the architects familiarized themselves with new developments in planetarium construction, mainly that those large acoustically transparent domes could be suspended inside existing rectangular spaces, planners started debating what the best design was for the overall facility.

Stars or Aero and Space Escapades?

In 1971, the new Air and Space director, Apollo astronaut Michael Collins keenly knew that Ripley was strongly in favor of a planetarium-type facility that would be "of a special design for an optical instrument to illustrate the sensation of being in space rather than on the surface of the earth." Collins forcefully pushed for what he variously called a “Spacetarium” or a “Spacearium.”

Museum staff, notably Melvin Zisfein, seized on the Spacearium concept to answer a lingering question: would the facility be a "star show" or a "space show"? To Zisfein, this was a significant distinction, with very different philosophies, and projection hardware. The former, which Zisfein characterized as "spots-of-light-moving-across-a-dome" required an expensive precision projection system, like a $280,000 Zeiss Mk VI, the present top of the line. The $30,000 to $60,000 "space show" option, Zisfein pointed out "seems hardly to need a star display at all" because all effects could be produced by banks of slide projectors, motion picture projectors and "special effects devices." Zisfein described these as carrying the audience "visually to the sites of launchings, the interiors of moving space vehicles, and the surfaces of planets and moons." To Zisfein and many others, this was the obvious choice.

Zisfein recommended a staged approach, possibly using a “star ball” with a bank of projectors for horizon panoramas and special cine-projectors, in what he hoped would be an "Experimentarium" in the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries building that would prepare them for programming in the ultimate National Air and Space Museum building. This ensemble would allow them to develop a "space oriented star and planet projection planetarium" that would provide "Grand Tour" scenarios. Zisfein envisioned a wide range of programming for the Experimentarium, including among some 11 scenarios including an "extra-solar system landscape" depicting the Milky Way as seen from an airless planet orbiting an animated binary star somewhere in one of the Magellanic Clouds. There would be a lunar landscape using "retouched prints of the Apollo 15 panorama," astronauts roving in a lunar crater, and depictions of lunar orbit rendezvous maneuvers and docking maneuvers. There would also be non-space panoramas depicting a particular moment at Kitty Hawk in 1903, the "Charlier" rising from a 1782 Paris panorama, Spads performing aerobatics at Rhinebeck, a low pass by a fast moving jet, and time-lapse meteorological phenomena.

Some National Air and Space Museum staff did consider the Spacearium's "astronomical potential," but it would be limited mainly to after-hours activities. Astronomical themes might also be used for local school programming "during the slower hours of the day" which would provide balance between aerospace and astronomy education. The physical space they envisioned was for 300 seats under a 20-meter dome, with all consideration given to "rapid entry and exit" to "accommodate the most people in the most comfort in the shortest reasonable time." One can see little if nothing of the initial dreams of the Washington Planetarium group in these very practical, fast flowing, aerospace-oriented plans.

What Would Drive the Show?

With building planning underway, the key question became what to put into the planetarium” where would the projector come from? Spitz Laboratories in Delaware was the American leader providing small and mid-sized projection systems, and by that time there were many hundreds of Spitz projectors dotting campuses, libraries and landmarks. They also were developing larger models for larger domes and audiences, promising news views of space from vantage points beyond Earth. They could also simulate the "general motions of a vehicle in space."

There were also major manufacturers of planetarium projectors in Japan, and of course there was the possibility of acquiring a major Zeiss projector. There were procurement rules to follow, however, but if a projector was donated, it did not have to be from an American manufacturer. Collins seized upon this fact and by May 1972 was meeting with State Department staff to craft a strategy for approaching the German government about a Zeiss projector. About a year of negotiations and contact with the German Ambassador led to a projector being part of a “bicentennial gift” to America, and this cleared the way for direct contact between Collins and the Zeiss Company. Through 1973, wording was finally found that was acceptable to one and all, suggesting that whereas the United States neither seeks nor expects gifts of any kind, it would be would be happy to accept a Zeiss projector if offered by West Germany. In December, prompted by Collins, Wernher von Braun wrote to German Chancellor Brandt hailing the public visibility (“comparable to the Statue of Liberty”) a Zeiss machine would receive on the National Mall. In addition, it would draw friendly attention to the “German optic and precision mechanics industry.” A 21-meter theatre dome was already being designed, Von Braun noted, waiting for the best possible projector to fill it.

West Germany quickly agreed and spontaneously offered a projector, which was accepted by Ripley in March 1974, and announced publically at a White House State Dinner in the summer of 1975. There was no time to waste. Al Eftink, recently hired from a planetarium post in Hartford to be the the National Air and Space Museum’s chief technical and special effects guru, flew to Germany, and with two Zeiss technicians brought the projector to the museum and installed it, along with some 200 auxiliary projectors around the dome. He also created special warping harnesses to convert flat artwork into photographic montages to cover the dome seamlessly with out-of-this-world images. Eftink worked with Charles G. Barbely, who managed the Experimentarium in 1971 while planning for the new Spacearium, to prepare its first show, Cosmic Awakening, for the bicentennial. They both reported to Von Del Chamberlain, who, since 1973, had been the Museum’s first Chief of its Presentations & Education Division and an astronomer in the Space Science and Exploration Department.

With the Museum's opening on July 1, 1976, visitors could touch a piece of the Moon and walk through Skylab. And if they were persistent and observant, they could take in a space show in what was called the Albert Einstein Spacearium – on the second floor behind the NASA F-104.

Ironically, even though some Museum staff led by Zisfein had in effect argued against a major sky projector in favor of an immersive space travel capability, citing cost as one factor, the donation of the Zeiss settled this question and led to over 40 years of a healthy combination of both options led by a highly creative staff of planetarium educators, writers, artists, and technicians producing programmed space shows and live star shows created variously by Barbely, Chamberlain, Eftink, Tom Callen, and then by James Sharp and his gifted team, upgrading and making the system more “user friendly” with the help of Sky-Skan of Nashua, New Hampshire. The question naturally arises, will the balance continue in the future with a fully digital system?

Zeiss projector in the National Air and Space Museum's Albert Einstein Planetarium, weeks before being deinstalled. Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum