Press Release

Andrew Ng (415) 379-5123
Kelly Mendez (415) 379-5133


Special programs will take place at the California Academy of Sciences
from November 5-9, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO (October 3, 2012) – Morrison Planetarium will celebrate its 60th anniversary with a week of special programs at the California Academy of Sciences. From November 5-9, visitors can enjoy a “quadruple feature” of the planetarium’s all-digital, fulldome shows, see rarely displayed artwork and photographs from the Morrison’s history, and step back in time with special screenings of Science in Action, an educational TV series produced by the Academy from 1950-1966. In addition, adults can attend two evening programs: a lecture on November 5 describing the history of planetariums, and NightLife on November 8 featuring cocktails, music, and show screenings.

The original planetarium opened on November 8, 1952, with a gift from the estate of May T. Morrison, widow of Alexander Francis Morrison, a prominent San Francisco attorney for whom the planetarium is named. It made history as the first planetarium in the United States to feature a homemade star projector. On September 27, 2008, a new Morrison Planetarium opened as part of the completely rebuilt California Academy of Sciences, once again making history—this time as the world’s largest all-digital planetarium.

See below for a list of anniversary programs and a brief history of the planetarium.


November 5-9 from 11:30 am - 4:30 pm

For the first time since its reopening, Morrison Planetarium will play all four shows in its repertory throughout the day.
Free with Academy admission. Seating is limited; pick up your show passes at the planetarium entrance.

  • 11:30 am, 2:30 pm, 4:30 pm
    Earthquake: Evidence of a Restless Planet (2012)
    Narrated by Benjamin Bratt

    Witness the processes that shape our landscape in Morrison Planetarium’s newest show. Fly along the San Andreas Fault before diving into the planet’s interior, travel back in time to witness the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the break-up of Pangaea 200 million years ago, and get up to speed on the latest tremors around the world.
  • 12:30 pm
    Fragile Planet (2008)
    Narrated by Sigourney Weaver

    Leave planet Earth behind as you fly to the farthest reaches of the Universe and back in this 30-minute show. Begin your voyage at the Academy, lift off through the atmosphere to gain an astronaut’s view of Earth, then travel to the Moon, Mars, and beyond to search for habitats that might support life.
  • 1:30 pm
    Life: A Cosmic Story (2010)
    Narrated by Jodie Foster

    How did life on Earth begin? Take a high-speed tour of key events since the Big Bang that set the stage for life. Starting with the first stars and ending with the tremendous biological diversity on Earth today, Life will show audiences that the human pedigree is actually 13.7 billion years in the making.
  • 3:30 pm
    Journey to the Stars (2009)
    Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg
    Travel through space and time to experience the dramatic lives and deaths of stars. See brilliant supernova explosions, dive into the heart of the fiery Sun, and watch it transform into a red giant five billion years in the future. Along the way, you will discover the deep-rooted connection between humanity and the stars.

The History of Planetariums: The Morrison Turns 60
Monday, November 5 at 7:30 pm

Planetariums have informed and inspired audiences about the wonders of the Universe for almost 90 years. How did they come to be, and how have their approaches to science education and entertainment evolved during that time? As a science historian, Dr. Jordan D. Marché II of the University of Wisconsin will describe the major threads in planetarium history, including how the Morrison hosted the first planetarium light shows in the late 1950s. More than an account of evolving projection technologies, his talk will examine how the community of planetarium educators organized in response to broader social changes, including the dawning space age. $12 adults, $10 seniors, $6 Academy members. Purchase tickets in advance at or call (415) 379-8000. Seating is limited.

Thursday, November 8 from 6:00 - 10:00 pm

Every Thursday night, music, creatures, and cocktails come together for NightLife at the Academy. In honor of its 60th anniversary on November 8, Morrison Planetarium will screen a mini-marathon of its three recent productions: Fragile Planet, Life: A Cosmic Story, and Earthquake: Evidence of a Restless Planet. In addition, visit the Science in Action exhibit, stellar cocktail in-hand, to watch 1950s-era documentary footage introducing the world to the Morrison. Weather permitting, join staff on the living roof for stargazing and a glimpse of the planet Jupiter. NightLife is for ages 21+; a valid ID is required for entry. $12 per person ($10 for Academy members).

November 5-9 from 11:00 am - 4:00 pm

From 1950-1966, the Academy delighted millions of viewers with Science in Action, one of the first educational nature series on television. Step back in time and watch two 30-minute episodes from the archives, which have been specially transferred from 16 mm film: “Stars over San Francisco” (1952) and “Morrison Planetarium” (1965). Free with Academy admission. Takes place in the Naturalist Center.

Weekdays in November from 11:00 am - 4:00 pm
Weekends in November from 10:00 am - 5:00 pm

Visit the Naturalist Center on Level 3 to see a display of memorabilia from the old Morrison Planetarium: original artwork, blueprints, photographs, star projector light bulbs, and more. Got questions? An educator can help you with books, websites, and other resources. Free with Academy admission.


When Morrison Planetarium opened on November 8, 1952, it was the only planetarium in the United States that used a star projector designed and built domestically. Prior to that time, the Carl Zeiss company of Germany had created virtually every star projector in use. But in the aftermath of World War II, their factory lay in ruins, and there were no plans to revive their star projector business. Faced with this problem, yet determined to have a planetarium, Academy Director Robert Miller declared at a board meeting, “We will build a projector.”

The Academy achieved its goal by relying on the expertise of one of its paleontologists, Dr. G Dallas Hanna, who had an interest in optics. Using a simple brochure about a Zeiss projector as his guide, Dr. Hanna worked with the Academy’s machine shop to create the projector. The shop had acquired optics expertise during World War II, when it had been converted to military use.

Previously, star projectors made use of metal sheets drilled with tiny holes; light projected through the holes became stars on a planetarium dome. However, the resulting stars were too perfectly round and did not create a realistic starfield. The Academy projector made use of a different technique: using microscopes, an Academy staffer placed carborundum crystals onto glass lenses and then coated the lenses with vaporized aluminum. Positioning the crystals alone took six months to complete! When the crystals were carefully brushed away, they left a series of tiny holes that closely corresponded to the position of 3,800 different stars, and light projected through these irregularly-shaped holes resulted in a more naturalistic starfield. The completed star projector weighed some 5,000 pounds, stretched 13 feet in length, included 141 optical systems made up of 321 lenses, and contained 25,000 individual parts controlled by over four miles of wire.

The opening of the planetarium, with its American-made projector, made national news, coming at a time of growing interest in space exploration, but before NASA launches were common or man had walked on the Moon. Planetariums were so novel in 1952 that some early audience members would call the box office prior to their visit to ask if the evening’s show would be cancelled due to fog. They soon learned that the weather was always good for star-gazing inside the planetarium.

Fifty-six years later, on September 27, 2008, a new Morrison Planetarium opened as part of the completely rebuilt California Academy of Sciences. Housed in a 90-foot-diameter dome, the new planetarium once again employed the latest technologies to create immersive experiences for its visitors. It is currently the largest all-digital planetarium in the world. In addition, the 75-foot-diameter aluminum screen matches the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles as the largest planetarium screen in North America. Inside the dome, digital projectors and software, driven in part by advances in the video game industry, allow the planetarium to produce the most accurate and interactive digital Universe ever created, giving visitors the opportunity to tour the cosmos, “fly” to other planets, or even embark on adventures focusing on biology and Earth sciences.

“Our efforts redefine how science visualization integrates into planetarium programming,” said Ryan Wyatt, Director of Morrison Planetarium and Science Visualization. “Today’s technology allows us to convey scientific concepts with unprecedented fidelity, using actual research data as the foundation of our storytelling.”

Properly lit, the dome seems infinite to the entering visitor, creating a uniquely immersive experience and an accurate re-creation of many virtual environments—from Golden Gate Park to the Orion Nebula, 1,500 light-years away. Audience members view a show that fills their field of view and moves at a rate of 30 images per second, which visually approximates an alternate reality—corresponding not to a film, but to an experience inside an environment.

Since 2008, the Academy’s Visualization Studio has produced three fulldome shows for the planetarium: Fragile Planet, Life: A Cosmic Story, and Earthquake: Evidence of a Restless Planet. The flexibility of the new Morrison’s technologies has allowed it to host a variety of special events as well, such as musical performances, film screenings, and immersive lectures.