Paul McFarlane first visited the Fleischmann Planetarium in 1974, when he was 6, and took his first steps on a path to becoming a starship captain—traveling to distant galaxies and exploring new worlds.
In 2018, McFarlane landed his dream job: director of the planetarium on the University of Nevada, Reno, campus.
“This building is a sweetheart of a spaceship,” he said. “It’s bigger on the inside than the outside. We’ve got a whole universe in here—all of space and time.”
The planetarium and science center—which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year—resembles a starship. Its sweeping shape, called a “hyperbolic paraboloid,” reflects the aspirations of a space age that was just getting off the ground when the facility opened in 1963. Viewed from a distance, the sleek building seems to be in swift motion. Within, its curved roofline traces the path of the sun throughout the day. After dark, planets peek through the solar louvers of its curved, floor-to-ceiling glass prow.
The roof is made of 180 tons of concrete, laid down in a single pour and balanced on two points. In the early days, a few vehicles drove on it until a fence blocked access. Legend says babies were conceived on that rooftop, under the stars and above a place where galaxies swirl inside a 30-foot dome.
The planetarium exists thanks to the Max C. Fleischmann Foundation, which donated $480,000 to build it. The facility formerly housed the world’s first “atmospherium”—a 360-degree system invented to project horizon-to-horizon time-lapse images of an entire day’s weather in a few minutes. Atmospheric physicist Wendell Mordy, the planetarium’s founder, developed the revolutionary technology. For 10 years, “we were the only planetarium in the world with it,” McFarlane said.
Over the decades, the planetarium introduced many other innovations, hosted millions of visitors—and faced down two attempts by UNR administrators to erase it from campus. Each time, community members stepped up to save the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1976, the Desert Research Institute, which then managed the facility, decided to shutter the building due to high maintenance costs, and because the venue had been operating at a loss. The closure announcement sparked a “Save the Stars” fund drive, chaired by Clark J. Guild, which raised $350,000 to qualify for an additional grant for $450,000 from the Fleischmann Foundation. The building was repaired and reopened; star shows and movies continued to be painted in light inside the dome.
Art Johnson, who served as planetarium curator from 1973 to 2001, said the maintence problems in 1976 included a solar energy system that was “so ahead of its time” that it never worked as envisioned. Attendance for films shown on the 360-degree dome, he said, was a lot higher than for star shows during his tenure. The planetarium produced many of the movies, including a short of a Saturn V rocket launch; a multimedia production called the Conquest of Mars; and films about the Silver State such as Beautiful Nevada and Riches, the Story of Nevada Mining.
In December 2002, UNR officials again wanted to demolish the building to make room for more parking at the football stadium and Lawlor Events Center. Administrators complained that the facility consistently failed to make a profit, something Johnson and others said is an unrealistic expectation.
“I don’t know of any planetarium anywhere that is a profit center,” Johnson said. “All of them have underwriters and subsidies, just as museums do. You can’t charge enough for shows to pay for staff.”
UNR announced its demolition plans on Dec. 10, 2002, setting off a tsunami of protests from Northern Nevadans. Five weeks later, the university gave in and arranged for parking spaces elsewhere.
“The community just was not having that after it had been saved (in 1976),” Johnson said. “There was a lot of anger; the plan to demolish it just didn’t fly.”
In the following 20 years, films were shot and shown in an improved format that resulted in sharper images. The staff added more exhibits and programs.
Everything under the elegantly curved roof fuels imaginations. Shows on the dome take audiences from 20,000 leagues under the sea to the edges of black holes in deep space. Displays trace humans’ relationships to the stars, from cave drawings to modern explorations of our solar system and beyond. Glass cases are packed with memorabilia from science fiction and TV shows, with many of the artifacts signed by celebrities. Computer stations allow patrons to virtually land on the moon and then drive across its dusty surface. Outside, surrounded by a garden, visitors peer through telescopes.
Memories are made there every day. It has always been so.
Dreaming of the heavens
“When I was a kid, my mom often dropped me off, and I just stayed for hours,” McFarlane said. “In high school, I came for the laser shows. … (Now) I’m just a big kid and love being here. It’s a fusion of science, art and culture—the human experience.”
Each year, up to 50,000 visitors enter the planetarium’s doors, bound for distant worlds and places closer to home. “The stars were just the beginning,” McFarlane said. “… The first curator, Richard Norton, wrote the book on meteorites, and we have one of the largest collections in the nation.”
Past shows have included live views of the moon and our galaxy and close-ups of the sun’s surface.
“Grandparents who came here as children now bring their own grandchildren,” McFarlane said. “It’s a good place for making dreams possible. You have to dream it before you can do it.”
Sierra Gonzales, a graduate of Damonte Ranch High School who earned her master’s degree in mechanical engineering at UNR, knows about dreaming and doing. Her grandmother brought her to the planetarium when she was a girl.
“It showed the wide-eyed young me how to look up, past the gift-shop stars on my bedroom ceiling, and to the discoveries yet to be found; to tell the story of our universe, the never-ending record of our past and the expanding future,” Gonzales said.
In October 2020, Gonzales, then 24, sat at a console in the Lockheed Martin Space Center in Littleton, Colo., in her role as “real time operator” of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. She gave the command that told the unmanned probe to snag a sample from the surface of Bennu, an asteroid 200 million miles from Earth. “It was an exciting, unbelievable moment,” she said. The probe’s return capsule, with samples of the asteroid’s surface, landed back on Earth in September.
Gonzales’ planetarium visits helped inspire her career. “Picking one (job) for the rest of my life felt daunting; I didn’t want to be stuck,” she said. “Space, the final frontier, had no bounds, no limiting factors; that is what I wanted to be a part of. … Thank you, Fleischmann Planetarium.”
McFarlane said Gonzales is the latest in a long line of planetarium visitors and employees who went on to make their marks in science careers, education and space exploration. After six decades, the starship keeps moving at warp speed, taking passengers on treks across the voids of space and time.
The planetarium is featuring new shows, including Habitat Earth and Dream to Fly. On Wednesday, Nov. 15, 60 years to the day after the facility was dedicated, a concert entitled “Celestial Mechanics” is scheduled at UNR. The performance will celebrate the anniversary with music related to astronomy, including works by Bach, Herschel and others. Laser concerts will light the dome. The planetarium will showcase UNR students’ 360-degree, high-altitude balloon footage of the recent eclipse. On Friday and Saturday evenings in November, Native Skies will present indigenous sky knowledge and live star stories from the Washoe people.
“We are here to inspire the next generation of scientists and explorers,” said McFarlane, who often guides several tours a day, including for students on field trips from Nevada and California schools. The kids—and the starship captain leading them—are always excited to be there. And why not?
“I work in the coolest classroom on the planet,” McFarlane said. Like the oceans’ depths and outer space, “it’s a place of endless wonders. It continues to innovate and inspire.”