Early History of the De Anza College Planetarium

When the De Anza Planetarium opened it's doors on October 24, 1970, it was known as the Minolta Planetarium, named for the generous donation by the Minolta Camera Company, Ltd. of Japan of a state-of-the-art model MS-15 star projector. Minolta had been in the planetarium business in Japan for a good 15 years previously, and the gift was intended to be a "showroom" for their equipment in the US. The district found additional funding to build a 50 foot theater to house the projector, along with offices, sound studio and shop to complete the facility. The dome and cove lighting was provided by Spitz Space Systems in Pennsylvania, and an innovative 27 channel "Omniphonic" sound system with directional "joy stick" was built by Commercial Electronics, Ltd of Vancouver. The planetarium at De Anza joined several other science education assets of the district at Foothill College, including a Space Science Center, an observatory with a 16 1/2" telescope, and a 30 foot planetarium chamber containing a "Venus" model projection instrument produced by the Goto Optical Company of Japan.

At the controls in the publicity photo at left is Thomas M. Gates, who served as the Coordinator of Community Science Services for the college district. Tom had previously been Acting Manager at San Francisco's California Academy of Sciences Morrison Planetarium, Director of the Boeing Spacearium of the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington, and Associate Director of the Washington State University Planetarium and Observatory in Pulman, Washington. Tom's experience enabled him to build a top-notch planetarium facility, especially impressive for a junior college. A newsletter published in the summer of 1970 reflects the great activity on both campuses providing astronomy and science education to the community as well as college students. The Palo Times Sunday Supplement ran a feature article in November 1970 describing the newly completed Minolta planetarium.

In February of 1971 the district hired Dr. Donald McDonald as the first director of the Minolta planetarium. Coming from a directorship at the Kendall Planetarium at OMSI in Portland, Oregon, and one at the planetarium at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, McDonald wrote and produced many original programs for the planetarium, doing much of the creative work himself. Original programs produced in these early years of the planetarium included, "Time, Space, and the Stars", "Poetry of the Skies", "Destination: Mars", "The Jupiter Pioneers", "Encounter with the Aliens", and "Star of the Magi" (companion pamphlet here). The planetarium also adapted several commercially available programs including "They Walked By Starlight", "The Final Journey" and "Mother Drives a Flying Saucer". A "tongue-in-cheek" article written by Dr. McDonald for planetarium directors in 1973 describing the facility is here.

Only a few years after opening the planetarium introduced "Cosmic Concert", it's first laser light show, described by director McDonald in promotional messages as the laser show "WE'VE been waiting for". The programs were very popular and featured all kinds of music, ranging from classical to rock pieces, augmenting laser effects with the planetarium's special effect projectors. The memorable "storm" sequence featured pounding thunder, strobe lightning, and even simulated raindrops provided by squirt guns operated by ushers around the theater choreographed to a section of music from Rossini's opera "William Tell". 

Among the outreach programs provided by the planetarium was a radio spot discussing celestial happenings entitled "Star Gazer".  Tom Gates broadcast these short spots on San Francisco based CBS affiliate KCBS radio. Three examples are here, recorded as broadcast in early February 1972, one discussing the constellations, one about stars, and one about measuring distances in space (1973).

In June 1978 the Jarvis-Gann California property tax initiative ("Prop 13") decimated the Foothill-DeAnza Community Services budget, eliminating the programs and staff at Foothill's Space Science Center, electronics museum, observatory and planetarium, as well as the planetarium at De Anza. The district determined that the planetarium at Foothill should be removed and was replaced by a computer lab. Many planetaria across the country were cut or closed in the years following the conclusion of the Apollo moon missions, as interest in space and space education waned, a great contrast to the the blitz of planetarium installation in the "space age" of the sixties and early seventies.

The Foothill Community College District's Office of Community Services Annual Status Report for June, 1971 is available, containing a great many details of the early history of the district's space science activities.