James S. McDonnell Planetarium

Saint Louis Science Center, 5050 Oakland Avenue
Saint Louis, MO 63101


Since the James S. McDonnell Planetarium’s doors opened on April 16, 1963, more than 18.5 million people have experienced a connection with astronomy, space exploration and aviation through a visit to this iconic structure. Though visitors first experienced the Planetarium in April of 1963, city leaders had discussed the possibility of a Planetarium since at least the 1930s. In 1955, St. Louis voters approved $1 million toward the cost of building a planetarium in Forest Park. During construction, James S. McDonnell, the chief executive of McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, made a gift to cover additional costs.

When it opened in 1963, the James S. McDonnell Planetarium was one of only 11 large Planetariums in the United States. The space race was in full swing with President John F. Kennedy making the bold statement in 1962 that the United States would reach the Moon before the end of the decade. One month before the Planetarium opened, astronaut Gordon Cooper made history by becoming the first American to spend more than a day in space. He circled Earth 22 times in a Mercury spacecraft, Faith 7, which was built by workers in St. Louis at McDonnell Aircraft. 

On the day the Planetarium opened to the public, crowds lined the path to the entrance of the distinctive hyperboloid structure.  Designed by St. Louis architect Gyo Obata, of Helmuth, Obata and Kassebaum, the thin shell concrete structure rests on 12 pillars around the building. Except for the extreme top and bottom of the building, the shell is no more than three and one half inches thick anywhere. The Planetarium was quickly accepted as a local icon, soon gracing the phone book cover, local company reports and other publications. 

Over the years, the Planetarium’s exterior and interior have undergone restoration and renovation. It temporarily closed in late 1983 to prepare for a merger with the Museum of Science and Natural History then located in Oak Knoll Park. In July 1985, the renewed facility opened as the Saint Louis Science Center. In early 2000, the Planetarium again closed for a major renovation and reopened to the public in June 2001. From its initial opening in 1963 through its re-openings in 1985 and 2001, the Planetarium continues to be a state-of-the-art facility from which to experience the mystery and vastness of the universe. The 50th anniversary is an opportunity to look back not only over the Planetarium’s past, but to develop and launch plans for its future as well. Perhaps most importantly, the Planetarium’s 50th anniversary provides an opportunity for the Science Center to thank the St. Louis community for its support over the last half century. Help us commemorate the Planetarium's 50th Anniversary Year by sharing your memories and participating in special 50th Anniversary Year events. Schools can also participate in special 50th Anniversary Year Programs. 

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