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History

Max Adler and 2 other colleagues, posing in front of the Adler Planetarium (in black and white).

MAY 12, 1930
The Adler Planetarium, the first planetarium in the western hemisphere, opened to the public. Chicago business leader Max Adler contributed funds for the museum’s construction, a Zeiss projector, and the Mensing Collection of astronomical instruments. South Park Commissioners agreed to assume operating costs. Adler dedicated the institution as a “classroom under the heavens” for popular astronomy education. Philip Fox was the first Director of the Adler (until 1937).

1933 – 1934
During the Century of Progress World’s Fair, the Adler’s total attendance for the two-year period was more than 1.2 million people.

1935 – 1951
Annual attendance stabilized at approximately 250,000 per year from 1935 until 1942; it dropped to 177,000 and remained under 200,000 throughout World War II; attendance then returned to prewar levels until 1951. Maude Bennot served as Acting Director from 1937 to 1945, possibly the first woman to lead a major science museum. F. Wagner Schlesinger became Adler’s Director in 1945.

MID-1950s
Robert S. Adler, son of founder Max Adler, recruited civic leaders and organized the Chicago Planetarium Society, a non-profit membership organization which promoted interest in and raised funds for the Adler.

1957
As Sputnik was launched by the USSR, attendance at the Adler increased by approximately 100,000 and continued to rise during the 1950s and 1960s, reaching 587,425 in 1967. Albert V. Schatzel served as Acting Director until 1960, followed by Robert I. Johnson.

1964
The Astro-Science Workshop was launched as an accelerated science course for gifted high school students. It received an early grant from the National Science Foundation.

1967
At the request of Robert S. Adler and the Chicago Planetarium Society, Mayor Richard J. Daley organized a citizen committee to study the Adler and make recommendations for its future. The committee report called for the creation of a Board of Trustees to share management responsibility with the Chicago Park District. The report also called for a stronger professional staff and expanded educational programming.

1968 – 1970
Joseph M. Chamberlain, EdD, then director of the Hayden Planetarium (New York) was recruited as the Adler’s Director. Following the Mayor’s suggestions, he hired a professional staff and organized an evening course program. The Adler also purchased a new Zeiss planetarium projector and formed its Board of Trustees.

1970-1973
The Astro-Science Center capital campaign raised $1.8 million – matched by the Chicago Park District – to build an underground addition to the original 1930 building. The underground addition included the Kroc Universe Theater, a food service facility, school lunchroom, classrooms, library, full-scale bookstore/gift shop, and exhibition hall. These new facilities opened to the public on May 12, 1973.

1974
In January, The Adler’s first taped planetarium show, Comet Tales,  premiered in the Sky Theater.

1976
The Adler’s Board of Trustees assumed full management responsibility.

1977
The Doane Observatory opened as Chicago’s first high-powered public telescope. At the same time, The Field Museum’s King Tut exhibition drew record crowds that helped increase Adler attendance to 686,085.

1980
The Adler’s 50th anniversary celebration brought attendance to its highest point since the Century of Progress World’s Fair. The Half-Century Capital Campaign raised $2.65 million for new exhibitions, automation of both the Sky Theater and the Kroc Universe Theater, renovated collection facilities, construction of the McCormick Center for Young People, Doane Observatory improvements, and installation of the Henry Moore Sundial.

1985-86
The approach of Halley’s Comet increased Adler attendance by 200% over a six-month period.

1986
The Adler launched its Chicago’s Brightest Star campaign. By 1990, the Adler had raised $7.1 million for construction, new exhibitions, and an educational endowment.

1990
The Adler introduced Estrella de Maravilla, a Spanish-language version of its popular annual holiday sky show, Star of Wonder.

1991
The Adler “reopened” with a new exhibition area, dining and school lunch facilities, production suite and research center, and the “Stairway to the Stars” escalator from the Kroc Universe Theater to the Sky Theater. As a result of the successful campaign, the Adler hired an Education Coordinator and began a teachers workshop program. An outreach astronomer was hired for the Adler’s first venture into off-site programming, which utilized the inflatable “Starlab” portable planetarium.

Joseph M. Chamberlain retired and Paul H. Knappenberger Jr., PhD, was hired as president.

1995
The Universe In Your Hands is unveiled. The exhibition highlights instruments in the Adler’s Collection that illustrate astronomers’ early theories.

1996
The Adler announced the Universe is Expanding campaign to fund a 60,000 square-foot addition, a complete renovation of the original building, and creation of new exhibition galleries.

1997
Ground was broken on the expansion project.

1999
Governor Jim Edgar opened the Sky Pavilion, along with an extensive renovation of the original 1930 building. The Adler now offered several new exhibitions and the world’s first all-digital, interactive planetarium theater.

2001
The Center for Space Science Education opened at the Adler with the help of NASA and the State of Illinois. The Center included the CyberSpace Learning Center, which combined a state-of-the-art distance learning studio, multi-unit computer classroom, and an exhibition gallery offering daily updates from NASA.

2002
The Adler opened the Bringing the Heavens to Earth exhibition in the C. Paul Johnson Gallery. Visitors learned how cultures around the world explained and utilized the movement of the stars.

The Adler Womens Board was launched and invited to oversee the museum’s annual black tie gala, the Celestial Ball.

2003
Aliens at the Adler kicked off a year themed around the possibilities of life on other worlds. Two new sky shows (Search for Alien Worlds and Alien Encounters) and a temporary exhibition (Stranded in an Alien Lab) invited visitors to explore the Universe for other forms of life.

2004
Six new planetarium shows debuted: Mars Now!Mars Rocks!/Future FrontierThe Future is WildSonic VisionStars of the Pharaohs, and Secrets of Saturn.

The estate of Paul H. Leffmann announced the largest individual gift in Adler history – $5.5 million. The museum’s education center was named to recognize this generous bequest.

2005
On May 12, 2005, the Adler kicked off its 75th anniversary with a renewed commitment to academic achievement, public education, community partnerships, and museum visibility. Retired NASA astronaut Capt. James A. Lovell, Jr. served as Chairman of the Adler’s 75th Anniversary. The Board of Trustees announced a new museum vision – to inspire the next generation of explorers and become the world’s premier space science center.

2006
On November 11, the Adler unveiled the Shoot for the Moon exhibition. The first gallery—A Journey with Jim Lovell—featured Captain Lovell’s personal collection of space artifacts and the fully restored Gemini 12 spacecraft. The second gallery—Mission: Moon—showcased America’s return to the Moon in a highly interactive environment.

2007
The Boeing Company announced a $5 million commitment to help construct a new exhibition for the museum’s youngest visitors. It was the largest corporate gift in the museum’s history.

2008
The Board of Trustees authorized the formal naming of the museum’s History of Astronomy Department and collections as The Webster Institute for the History of Astronomy. The naming recognized the extraordinary 40-year commitment of Roderick S. and Marjorie K. Webster to the museum – as trustees, donors, and volunteer curators/collection managers. A friends group for the Webster Institute was founded to engage the philanthropic community in the Adler Collection.

2009
The Grainger Foundation announced a $5 million commitment to help restore the Adler’s historic Sky Theater, the first planetarium theater in the western hemisphere.

On July 1, the Adler announced the largest fund drive in its history, the $40 million Lift-Off! Campaign for Chicago’s Space Center. It was chaired by Trustees Frank M. Clark and Captain James A. Lovell, Jr.

2010
Planet Explorers–the Adler’s first major exhibition for young children (ages 3-8)–opened in the newly-named Boeing Exploration Center.

In April, the Adler hosted a national celebration of the 40th Anniversary of Apollo 13. NASA leaders, veteran astronauts and flight directors were joined by actors from Ron Howard’s Oscar-winning film. The events raised more than $900,000 for Adler education programs.

In September, the Celestial Ball surpassed the $1 million mark in gross revenues, a ten-fold increase since the Womens Board was invited to host the event in 2002.

2011
In July, the Adler unveiled the newly-renovated Grainger Sky Theater–the most technologically sophisticated theater facility in the world–and the iconic Clark Family Welcome Gallery. Deep Space Adventure premiered as the first presentation in the adjoining new spaces.

In December, the Adler concluded the Lift-Off! Campaign for Chicago’s Space Center and announced it raised $54 million.

2012
In March, Adler President Paul H. Knappenberger Jr. announced he would retire at the end of the year, after 21 years of service to the institution. A panel of Trustee leaders was recruited to oversee the search for a new chief executive officer.

2013
In January, Michelle B. Larson, PhD, became the Adler’s ninth leader and first female president.

2014
In May, Destination Solar System debuted as the new marquee show in the Grainger Sky Theater.

In October, the Adler unveiled a new online catalog that makes the museum’s collection available to anyone in the world with internet access.

The Adler also completed phase one of a major renovation to the Doane Observatory—the first since its opening in 1977. Facility upgrades allowed the Doane to run independently of the museum, giving scientists and the public more time with its powerful telescope.

2015
In April, the Adler celebrated the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission and re-opened Mission Moon, an interactive exhibition that tells the story of America’s first steps to the Moon, featuring artifacts from Captain Jim Lovell’s personal collection. NASA astronauts and flight directors joined Adler Trustees and donors in commemorating this historical moment.

To celebrate the 85th anniversary, the Adler opened the Community Design Lab—a collaborative workspace where guests bring their curiosity, are given a design challenge, and are offered a variety of materials to bring their ideas to life. They then are encouraged to test and tweak their designs based on the outcomes

In September, the Adler launched its first science roadshow, Galaxy Ride, taking a taste of the Adler experience to seven communities from Chicago to St. Louis along Route 66.

The Adler also broke an attendance record, welcoming 539,499 visitors— up 22% from 2014 and the most since 1993.

2016
In May, the Adler debuted a new sky show, Planet Nine, which the Chicago Tribune called, “the Adler’s best sky show yet.”

Far Horizons’, the Adler’s program of high-altitude balloon missions carrying student-designed experiments into the stratosphere, celebrated their 100th flight and set a new record for number of flights in a year at 15.

In the fall, during the Kavli Fulldome Lecture Series, the Adler executed their first virtual reality pilot, sending out Google Cardboard devices all over the world to select institutions and organizations including Lurie Children’s Hospital, so that patients could experience the immersive lecture remotely via the Cardboard and smartphone.

In total, 20,000 people looked through the Doane Observatory’s telescope in 2016 (an increase of 40% from 2015) including visitors from 45 states and 65 countries.

Also notable, was the First Prize in the BSHS Great Exhibitions Competition for What is a Planet?‘Scopes in the City becoming a top 100 Finalist for the Chicago Innovation Awards, and the Adler breaking another attendance record with an increase of 5% over 2015.

2017
The Adler’s Year of the Eclipse kicked off with the opening of a new temporary exhibition, Chasing Eclipses, in March.

Throughout the spring and summer, Adler educators and staff were out in the community giving talks and preparing Chicago for the great solar eclipse that occurred on August 21. The Adler’s Galaxy Ride science roadshow went to towns near Carbondale, Illinois—the site of greatest duration during the total solar eclipse—to drum up excitement via hands-on science and solar eclipse glasses.

In total, the Adler distributed 250,000 safe solar viewing glasses to schools, public libraries, and communities across the state and facilitated over 125 educational and outreach programs to educate those who normally would not have access to our institution.

The Adler’s eclipse efforts through August 21 impacted more than 500,000 people including a record number at the Adler when 60,000 people experienced the solar eclipse together during Chicago’s Eclipse Fest.

A total of 636,008 guests explored the Universe with the Adler Planetarium, bringing space science and STEM education to even more communities throughout Illinois. Attendance increased by more than 10%, resulting in another record year. This outcome was due in large part to the Adler’s ongoing commitment to reach more guests beyond the museum walls.

2018
As a leader in public engagement, the Adler Planetarium inspires everyone to #lookup with us and connect with the sky. This was evident during our Observe Mars! event where 3,000 friends gathered to see Mars together as a community and in locations across Chicagoland, as we expanded our ‘Scopes in the City reach to introduce new folks to the sky above.

Other highlights of 2018 included the launch of Letters to Lovell—a letter-writing campaign asking the public to share stories of how Captain Lovell has inspired them. Letters from people across the globe expressed how his bravery and perseverance encouraged them to pursue their dreams, and to face their own challenges in times of adversity. These letters were then presented to Captain Lovell in the form of the Adler’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2018 Celestial Ball—the most successful Celestial Ball to date.

The Adler’s student-led initiative The Aquarius Project, created to recover meteorites from the bottom of Lake Michigan, held its first recovery missions in the summer. The project garnered local and national media coverage, a Chicago Innovation Award, and the Adler’s first multi-episode podcast to tell the story.

In 2018, the Adler’s Far Horizons high-altitude ballooning program, began a new groundbreaking light pollution research project in tandem with the Adler Planetarium’s Youth Organization for Lights Out (Y.O.L.O.) program. The Far Horizons NITELite mission is preparing to send balloons high above Chicago with sensitive cameras to snap thousands of images to create a map of the city at night.  The data gathered will complement readings being compiled from ground-level monitors. This research, driven by students and volunteers, will characterize the lighting in Chicago and identify sources of light pollution, with several test missions already completed. This is the first time light pollution is being mapped from high-altitude balloons, and was a major focus of the Far Horizons programming in the 2018-2019 academic year.

2019
The Adler celebrated the 50th anniversary of humankind’s first steps on the Moon throughout the year. A new Adler-produced sky show, Imagine the Moon, opened in January and focused on the many ways Earth’s natural satellite has inspired human creativity, learning, and exploration throughout history.  The Adler’s main interior stairwells became sites of Infinite Possibilities, mini-exhibitions that included information for the January 20 lunar eclipse, art installations, and inspirational quotations from the days of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission.

Partnering with local street artists and libraries, the Adler executed the Chicago Moonshot Mural project. Community members painted canvases created by street artists that brought to life various neighborhoods’ “Moonshots” – achievements thought to be impossible (like landing on the Moon) but can be realized through teamwork and determination. The July 20 Moon landing 50th-anniversary date was marked with a two-day Moon Bash, which included hands-on programs, special lectures and performances, and one-day-only theater shows. The Bash focused on both the past and the future of space exploration; and how everyone can be a part of this ongoing story of discovery.

In April, the Adler became the first planetarium in space with the launching of its ThinSat, a nano-satellite about the size of a slice of bread, via an Antares 110 rocket. A collaborative of scientists, engineers, and students from Chicago’s ITW David Speer Academy built a multi-band photometer to ride aboard the ThinSat. The photometer was designed to measure the Earth’s brightness in six colors from the perspective of the launched nano-satellite.

Since fewer than one percent of the 4,500 stars visible to the unaided eye can be seen in light-polluted skies, the Adler’s exhibition Chicago’s Night Sky opened to encourage curious people to #lookup in fall 2019. It gave visitors the opportunity to discover ways to creatively connect to the night sky, using real science and research drawn from Adler programs.

Thanks to a generous anonymous grant, the Adler developed plans to replicate its hugely popular Community Design Lab in additional locations throughout the museum. The first two of the new Labs opened in late 2019: Community PlayLab, geared towards children six and under and their families; and the Community Star Studio, a major element of the new Chicago’s Night Sky exhibition.  Plans for two more Labs went into development: a mobile community space focused on using the social sciences, and a history-focused workshop.

2020
The Adler revealed a new brand identity, 18 months in the making, in January coinciding with the Adler’s 90th anniversary. Celebrations for the 90th were put on-hold indefinitely when the Planetarium was forced to close in mid-March. All Chicago museums were closed for varying lengths of time as the entire city locked-down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Rather than waiting to re-open, the Adler opted for a “virtual museum” structure that began immediately upon closure and will continue as an integral part of the Planetarium.

The Adler Zooniverse team members promoted a multitude of online projects allowing citizens around the world to help conduct actual science research. Since the ’Scopes in the City program could not bring telescopes out to community centers as usual, Adler Educators and Astronomers streamed beautiful astro-images to audiences along with live question-and-answer sessions as part of Sky Observers Hangout.

Reaffirming the Adler’s commitment to its local teen network, video-conferences and remote research collaborations allowed them to continue to build their STEAM skills and projects, even through a virtual summer internship environment.

A new recurring YouTube program, Skywatch Weekly, was developed to visually describe sky highlights that viewers can see in their own night sky, encouraging viewers to keep looking up on their own.

Focusing on the medical emergency, the Adler’s 3-D printers were used to produce over 5,800 face shields for medical staff at local west and south-side hospitals. Also, the power of the Adler’s sky show servers was used to help model the structure of COVID-19 proteins in support of the University of Washington’s Rosetta@home research project.

A new online exhibition, 90 Years of Stellar Connections, invites Adler fans around the world to celebrate its historic milestone and explore the museum’s past and future. Additional online exhibitions are being launched each month through a partnership with Google Arts & Culture.

Adler Astronomy Live, a bi-weekly interactive series for space enthusiasts was launched to bring space-science concepts and visualizations to life to a digital audience and answer their questions along the way.

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