At the center of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science’s Planetarium stands a masterpiece of its time: the Spitz Model B Space Transit Projector, a 1960s state-of-the-art machine that's the last of its kind still in use.
Nearly five decades ago, this heap of black aluminum began dazzling Miamians with the brilliance of an unadulterated night sky. In light of the museum’s planned move to a new downtown building, the projector’s lamp will be dimmed.
The museum, which opened in 1960 on three acres of the historic Vizcaya complex, will officially close the doors at its 3280 South Miami Ave. location at 10 p.m. Sunday. It will reopen in its new $300 million state-of-the-art facility in Museum Park in summer 2016.
The Spitz Model B Space Transit Projector won’t be part of the daily show but will be used as a display like the other fossils from the past. This is a tale about the one-of-a-kind centerpiece in the old planetarium.
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The Spitz looks like something out of "Star Wars," like two halves of a Death Star stuck on either end of a metal rod — a “Death Star dumbbell.” Fifty-six-hundred holes are poked through the balls, many so small they are invisible to the naked eye.
There were only 12 of these Spitz projectors ever made. Ten went to planetariums, one stayed in the factory and one was installed in a New York discotheque.
Over the years, the projector has lovingly been referred to as “the museum within the museum,” a fossil that put on shows three to four times a day, every day.
“In our modern day with all of the digital technology, we think [that] back then, they didn’t know how to do [anything],” said Mark Bennett, manager of the planetarium. “[But] this is truly an amazing piece of machinery… a marvel of technology.”
In 1966, one couldn’t overstate how advanced this projector was; it was the Rolls Royce of projectors.
What set it apart was its ability to turn on a third axis. Imagine that Death Star dumbbell being twirled like a baton.
This allowed the entire projector apparatus to turn around, showing audiences what space looked like, not just from Earth but from outside of it. In fact, Apollo astronauts used this projector in their training so they could learn how to orient themselves using stars, Bennett said.
Behind all this was the first computer to ever power a projector, made up of three 6-by-1.5-foot racks. While it was state-of-the-art in the '60s, today it has less computing power than a digital watch.
But computing power and mechanics have little to do with how audiences experienced the stars in the planetarium.
Russell Romanella was about 10 years old when he first went to the Miami planetarium. He, like so many other Miamians, had grown up under only the city lights.
“I remember being inside of the planetarium and seeing the night sky for the first time,” he recalled. “It made me think. It made me wonder about the universe. It made me try to understand why we are here, what else is out there and it just got me hooked.”
Romanella went on to become NASA’s director of safety and mission assurance.
After almost half a century, he still remembers the Spitz projector being a “beast” of a machine. “It looked like something from the future and something from the past all at the same time."
Now, that beast is the last of its kind still standing.
“The rest of them, either we have the spare parts, or they've gone the way of the dumpster,” Bennett said.
The museum has no idea how many star shows the Spitz projector has put on, but soon there won’t be any left.
At the new location, a brand-new digital projector will be used to awe visitors: Modern projectors can zoom in on planets and fly out of the solar system.
With more than a twinge of nostalgia, Bill Dishong, a 44-year Planetarium veteran, said there is one small drawback to the new technology.
“It doesn't make a realistic sky,” Dishong said. The digital projectors “can do all kinds of things, but it doesn't look like a real sky.”