5050 Oakland Avenue
St. Louis, Missouri 63110
Telephone: (314) 289-4400
Fax: (314) 289-4420
Web site: https://www.slsc.org
Sales: $22.5 million (2015)
NAICS: 712110 Museums
The St. Louis Science Center Foundation operates the Saint Louis Science Center (SLSC). Located in St. Louis's Forest Park, the center consists of a science museum-center, the OMNIMAX Theater, and the James S. McDonnell Planetarium. The science center features more than 700 hands-on exhibits and science demonstrations. It also offers school and group activities and hosts school field trips and youth and outreach programs. The OMNIMAX Theater, a five-story, 79-foot diameter dome, offers a full-vision, surround-sound experience. The James S. McDonnell Planetarium is one of the premiere planetariums in the United States. Using the world's highest quality opto-mechanical star projector and a 24-meter dome, the planetarium offers a variety of night sky star shows. The planetarium also offers public telescope viewing, flight simulators, and virtual reality spacewalk and prehistoric undersea adventure rides. Free to enter, although admission is charged for planetarium and OMNIMAX shows, the SLSC hosts 1.2 million visitors each year. As part of the city's Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District, the SLSC receives half of its approximately $7.4 million annual operating budget from its share of the district's property tax revenues. The remaining funds are provided by community sources.
The Saint Louis Science Center traces its lineage to the founding of the Western Academy of Natural Sciences in St. Louis in 1836, which was part of the lyceum movement to impart scientific knowledge to the public in the pursuit of moral and social improvement. A group of 12 local physicians, a lawyer, an engineer, and a businessman reorganized it in 1856 as the Academy of Science of St. Louis, which became the first scientific organization west of the Mississippi River. The academy members created a library and museum collection and published a journal to announce their botanical and other natural history discoveries.
In 1955 St. Louis voters approved a bond issue that included $1 million to build a planetarium, something for which there had been talk since at least the 1930s. Although not the first city with a planetarium, St. Louis became the first with one built with tax money. A $200,000 overrun on the project would be covered by James S. McDonnell, an aviation pioneer and founder of the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, for whom the planetarium would be named.
A search for a suitable location led to a site on the southern part of St. Louis's Forest Park that had previously served as a mounted police station. Demolition of the old facility and construction of a planetarium, science museum, and natural history museum commenced in 1960. By that point public fascination with astronomy was spurred by the idea of space exploration and the race between the United States and the Soviet Union to place humans in orbit around the earth and ultimately visit the moon. In St. Louis, interest was even more intense because of McDonnell Aircraft's participation. The company had won contracts to build the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft.
When the planetarium opened in April 1963, admission for adults was 50 cents and 25 cents for children. The following month the astronaut Gordon Cooper circled the earth 22 times in a McDonnell-built craft, becoming the first American to spend more than a day in space and creating more interest in the new 408-seat planetarium, which experienced long lines for its star shows. Tim O'Neil offered a description of the 8,000-pound, $175,000 projector in an April 2009 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “It was 17 feet tall, looked like a black bug and created constellations through 199 small lenses, which were lighted by two 1,000-watt bulbs and aimed by 42 whirling internal motors.” Rooftop telescope viewings were also offered to the public. More than 250,000 people visited the planetarium during its first year.
In the meantime, the Academy of Science established the Museum of Science and Natural History in Oak Knoll Park in nearby Clayton, Missouri, in 1959. The Metropolitan Zoological Park & Museum District was established in 1971, at which point the museum became independent from the academy and a member of the new entity. Like the planetarium, the museum was popular with the public, and by the early 1980s it had outgrown its space. However, St Louis residents' interest in the planetarium was beginning to wane somewhat. To stimulate sagging attendance, the planetarium introduced the laser light show Laserium in 1975. The show, created two years earlier by a Los Angeles filmmaker, featured both classical and rock music. Laserium increased attendance at the planetarium—as many as 5,000 spectators a week at the peak of the show—but it eventually ran its course and came to an end in 1983. A space shuttle program introduced by the planetarium in 1981 failed to make up a drop in attendance, which led to job cuts.
In a bid to save the planetarium while providing a new home for the Museum of Science and Natural History, voters agreed on a proposal in April 1983 to merge the planetarium and museum. The measure passed and the following year the museum acquired the planetarium from the city of St. Louis. After extensive renovations, the planetarium reopened in July 1985 as the Saint Louis Science Center. The expanded facility found favor with the public. Attendance grew to 886,000 in 1989, and since its reopening five years earlier, the SLSC had a total of 3.5 million visitors.
The following year brought The Dinosaurs Alive exhibit, which attracted large crowds. Work on a $34 million project was also underway to construct a main building that was connected to the planetarium by a walkway bridge that spanned Interstate Highway 64/U.S. 40. The new building opened in November 1991. It included a five-story OMNIMAX Theater.
In some respects, the SLSC became the victim of its own success. The center received visits from a large number of school children and was unable to keep up with repairs, which resulted in several exhibits being closed to the public. Many of the center's commissioners, who had made disappointing visits with children and grandchildren, expressed their anger over the state of affairs at a board meeting held during the spring of 1994. “In an exchange that became increasingly pointed,” reported Linda Tucci in the St. Louis Business Journal in May 1994, “commissioners made it clear they had lost patience with the Science Center's chronic equipment failures. They finally directed museum officials to fix the exhibits or the board would fix the equipment for them.”
Conditions subsequently improved and soon work began on a new 41,000-square-foot space to house large traveling exhibitions. Opened in February 1997 and dubbed the Exploradome, it was an inflatable vinyl structure that cost less than $2 million and took only four months to build. It was capable of lasting some 20 years, by which time the SLSC hoped to construct a permanent exhibition hall.
The renovation project included repairs to the roof, which had experienced occasional leaking, and a new entrance on the north side of the planetarium to provide improved handicapped access. The parking lot was also refinished, restrooms improved, the electrical and air conditioning systems upgraded, food service added to the lower level, and grass replaced the concrete plaza that surrounded the exterior. A space station exhibit was installed as well. However, the primary purpose of the project was the improvement of the planetarium experience. The main chamber was enlarged from 60 feet to 80 feet in diameter, a state-of-the-art $3.5 million Zeiss Mark IV Universarium projector was installed, and new fiber-optic technology allowed the star field to be displayed continuously, even in low-light environments. The planetarium reopened during the spring of 2001.
During the early 2000s the SLSC expanded its community mission. After three years in development, the 6,000-square-foot Orion Center opened in Camdenton, Missouri, during the summer of 2003. Located in the Ozarks about 175 miles southwest of St. Louis, the new affiliated center offered astronomy, archeology, geology, and paleontology exhibits. Many of them had previously been housed in the SLSC's main hall and were now available to rural school children and residents. Puzzles and other experiments were also included, and on the grounds of the 4.6-acre site was a full-scale reproduction of the United States' first manned space capsule: John Glenn's Friendship 7. Moreover, a $17,000 inflatable portable planetarium that could accommodate 75 people was available to schools.
In 2005 the SLSC celebrated its 20th anniversary by bringing back some of its most popular exhibits. They included Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, which was inspired by the success of an Academy Award–winning movie about the famous naval disaster. This exhibit drew more than 184,000 visitors between December 2001 and April 2002. Additionally, the center offered new attractions, such as CenterStage, an opportunity for visitors to listen to scientists and experts discuss a wide range of topics.
As the next decade unfolded, the SLSC continued to make improvements. During the fall of 2008, a new $1.3 million, 4,700-square-foot life science lab opened, courtesy of a federal grant. Outfitted with numerous workbenches and scientific tools, it provided a chance for visitors to conduct experiments. In October 2011 the SLSC finally opened a permanent exhibition space. Named Boeing Hall, it spanned 13,000 square feet.
In 2013 the planetarium celebrated its 50th anniversary. Laserium was brought back for a limited run. Special programs were also offered, including Gateway to the Universe: Celebrating 50 Years of the James S. McDonnell Planetarium, an exhibit that featured memorabilia from the planetarium and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's space programs. The planetarium's first director also discussed recent space technology achievements in 50 Years of Astronomy with Professor Charles Schweighauser.
James S. McDonnell Planetarium; OMNIMAX Theater.
Milwaukee Public Museum, Inc.; Museum of Science and Industry; Science City at Union Station
“Boeing Gives $200,000 to Help Renovate Planetarium.” St. Louis Business Journal, November 22, 1999, 53A.
Keaggy, Diane Toroian. “Planetarium Has Been a Star Maker for 50 Years.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 11, 2013.
O'Neil, Tim. “Where Star-Gazers Gather.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 12, 2009.
Patires, Charis. “Bringing Science Home.” Lake Sun Leader (Camdenton, MO), August 13, 2003.
Randle, Julie. “Science Center Celebrates Double Decade Anniversary.” Oakville-Mehlville Journal, September 28, 2005.
Tucci, Linda. “Science Center Board Blisters Wint.” St. Louis Business Journal, May 9, 1994.