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Science

The Story Behind Miami's Projector, The 'Death Star Dumbbell'

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Wilson Sayre
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WLRN

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.

Forty-eight years 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 will probably not see another year of use.

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.

Today, the projector is lovingly referred to as “the museum within the museum,” a fossil that still puts on shows three to four times a day, every day.

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Credit Wilson Sayre
The Spitz in the background and the console in the fore, began projecting the stars for Miamians, many who had never seen a real nigh sky, back in 1966.

“In our modern day with all of the digital technology, we think [that] back then, they didn’t know how to do [anything],” says Mark Bennett, manager of the planetarium. “[But] this is truly an amazing piece of machinery… a marvel of technology.”

In 1966, you 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, Bennett says Apollo astronauts used this projector in their training so they could learn how to orient themselves using stars.

Watch the Death Star dumbbell twirling below:

Behind all this was the first computer to ever power a projector, made up of three 6-by-1.5-foot racks. It was state of the art in the '60s, but today it has less computing power than a digital watch.

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Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN
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WLRN
Two of the three racks that make up the Apollo-era computer, which today, have less computing power than your average digital watch.

But computing power and mechanics have very 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 recalls. “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,” says Bennett.

The museum has no idea how many star shows the Spitz projector has put on, but it knows roughly how many shows are left.

In 2015 the planetarium is expected to move to a new building downtown with a brand-new digital projector: 2015 vintage state of the art, not 1966. Modern projectors can zoom in on planets, and fly out of the solar system.

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Credit Wilson Sayre
Some of the Spitz company's promotional materials for the Space Transit Projector.

With more than a twinge of nostalgia, Bill Dishong, a 44-year Planetarium veteran, says there is one small drawback to the new technology.

“It doesn't make a realistic sky,” explains Dishong. The digital projectors “can do all kinds of things but it doesn't look like a real sky.”

But even that, he says, is no reason to continue using the Spitz after the move where it will be used, as a display like the other fossils from the past.