A Brief History of Fiske Planetarium 1
Sometimes, waiting produces a superior end result. Consider the bequest of Wallace Franz Fiske (Class of 1917) — upon his death in 1966, Fiske donated $1.13 million to the University of Colorado. One quarter was given to the Music Department — it quickly established two music scholarships in Fiske's name for academic achievement and for performance. The remainder of the bequest was "to build and equip a planetarium for the University of Colorado". CU's astronomers (at that time, the Astro-Geophysics Department, now the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences)... waited. How would a planetarium support the mission of the Department? By the time CU's astronomers decided to act on Fiske's bequest in 1971, their share had grown to $1.61 million.
As the United States slid into polyester and economic recession, work began on Fiske Planetarium. Its striking aluminum geodesic dome makes Fiske Planetarium a distinctive landmark on the CU-Boulder campus. Inside, its 65-foot diameter projection screen dome is the largest between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Gerrit Verschuur was hired in 1971 as the first Director, with half his time dedicated to teaching. James Sharp, an engineer at Strasenberg Planetarium (Rochester, NY) was hired to oversee the building design, organize the planetarium staff and build the auxiliary systems (slide projectors, special effect projectors, a sound system and a pre-computer automation system that used sound signals like a touch-tone phone). Their first major purchase was a Zeiss mark VI star projector (better known as Fritz), ordered in 1971, delivered in 1973 and installed in 1975. Unique to the building design were a projection gallery behind the screen to provide easy access to the projectors and a catwalk above it, used both for maintenance and as a performance space where dancers or musicians could be back lit and appear 20 feet above the planetarium floor.
Fiske Planetarium was dedicated on September 19, 1975, and opened its doors to the public the next day with "Stardeath", an original show about supernovae written by Verschuur, and "Quaking Aspens", a visual program by CU Fine Arts Faculty Gary Metz. Laser shows at Fiske began in 1976, providing an intermittent revenue stream as well as technical training for undergraduates. While the music accompanying the laser visuals has evolved, by far the most popular laser shows at Fiske remain set to timeless classics by Pink Floyd. In 1976, Fiske Planetarium had the honor of hosting the International Society of Planetarium Educators (now the International Planetarium Society) Conference to establish its presence in the planetarium community. From the outset, the mission of Fiske Planetarium was to serve undergraduate astronomy students, K-12 school groups and the general public.
Fiske directors and acting directors during the 1980's included David Aguilar, Bruce Bohannon and Larry Esposito. For a time, Fiske was under the aegis of the CU Vice Chancellor's Office and of CU's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). Other notable staff from that decade included Gene Ammarell, Suzy Gerton, Neil Macky, Geoff Skelton and Bob Stoller. Science Discovery classes began at Fiske in 1983, then evolved into their own suite of programs led by Carol McLaren's staff and ultimately to their own facility in 2004 on East Campus.
In the 1990's, Katy Garmany and Ted Snow directed planetarium programs that included hands-on classes, connections with other CU departments and student groups, and a series of live talks by leading astronomers. Bob Stoller (Operations Manager) upgraded planetarium automation to the current SPICE system and improved audio-visual systems several times. By 2001, Rob Morris and Sanlyn Buxner provided K-12 outreach while the Department established a new undergraduate major in Astronomy. APS now has 130 majors and one of the top graduation rates in the country, with 18 Bachelor's Degrees awarded in 2005.
In 2002, the current planetarium director, Doug Duncan, was brought to CU from Adler Planetarium. But in 2003, a disaster struck — a catastrophic flood by a broken water main which spared Fritz but destroyed the theater. Thanks to a generous donation by Bonnie & Gary Koerber, as well as a loan from the Dean's Office, new chairs and carpeting transformed the theater into the comfortable venue it is today.
By 2004, Francisco "Tito" Salas was named Operations Manager, Suzanne Traub-Metlay became Education Programs Manager and Tom Muncy returned as Systems Engineer. That same year, Fiske completed its first planetarium show for international distribution. Funded by NASA in association with the University of Maryland, JPL and Ball Aerospace, "Deep Impact: Rendezvous with a Comet" now plays in planetariums throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. "Space Storm", funded by NASA in association with LASP, was completed in 2005 and awaits similar international distribution.
Fiske Planetarium also remains a venue of choice for the Graduate School as well as several CU departments, including (but not limited to) Anthropology, Applied Math, Spanish and Portuguese, and Theatre and Dance. Nobel Prize-winners, Aborigine storytellers and distinguished scientists from a variety of disciplines and institutions consistently provide live multimedia presentations at Fiske. Meanwhile, live concerts in 2005 ranged from avant-garde electronica to sophisticated jazz.
Today, more than 4,000 CU undergraduates and hundreds of community college students each year learn astronomy at Fiske Planetarium. Each year, Fiske provides jobs and technical training for dozens of CU students and high school volunteers. Through course fees and direct support, the Department further ensures that Fiske plays a vital role in undergraduate education at CU. NASA grants are also a key source of financial support for Fiske, which has established itself as a leading non-profit producer of scientifically-accurate and education standards-aligned planetarium shows. K-12 school group visits and teacher workshops are yet another steady revenue source, while ticket sales to the general public are a mainstay.
So Fiske Planetarium has waited 30 years to celebrate its successes. Fiske Planetarium looks forward to a productive maturity (with a new digital video projection system to accompany Fritz's beautiful analog stars) during which Fiske staff will serve, even better, the University, the Department, the local school districts and the general public.
1 Written by Suzanne Traub-Metlay (Fiske Education Programs Manager) with assistance by Bob Stoller (former Fiske Operations Manager and Technical Director) and Mike Shull (Professor, Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Science).
2 Verschuur, G.L. and Sharp, J.H. (1975). "The Fiske Planetarium in Boulder". Sky and Telescope, September 1975. Pages 140-144.
3 Merkle, Scott (1989) "Behind the Scenes at Fiske Planetarium." Colorado Engineer, Summer 1989. Pages 16-17.
4 Anonymous (1976). "Boulder, Colorado, Site for 1976 ISPE Conference". The Planetarian, March 1976. Pages 3-5.
5 Authors extend apologies to former Fiske staff inadvertently not mentioned in this list. If you would like to contribute to any forthcoming written histories of Fiske Planetarium please contact us.
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