In the late 1960s, the San Diego Hall of Science (now known as the San Diego Space and Science Foundation) was planning a new planetarium for San Diego's Balboa Park. The planetarium would have several innovative features. First of all, the 76-foot diameter dome would be tilted 25 degrees. The audience would be placed in tiered rows facing outward into the tilted dome to give the feeling of being suspended in space. The founders also wanted to develop a large-format film projection system to show movies on the dome. The movies would use the innovative idea of filming through a fisheye lens. This would create a highly distorted image on the film but with a 180 degree panoramic view. When projected on the dome through another fisheye lens, the distortion would be reversed and the original panoramic view would be recreated. The audience would have a view that was like being at the original scene. Finally, they wanted to eliminate the large dumbbell-shaped star projector jutting from the center of the room and blocking part of the view. Such a star projector would also interfere with the movies being projected onto the dome.
The San Diego Hall of Science approached Spitz Laboratories to create a new star projector that would not obstruct the view for part of the audience or interfere with the movie projection system. Spitz created a servo-controlled "starball" that became the centerpiece of the system dubbed a "Space Transit Simulator". The spherical star projector and a number of independent planet projectors maintained a low profile while projecting a realistic sky for the astronomy presentations.
These elements, along with a number of slide projectors and lighting systems, were all controlled by a PDP-15 minicomputer. Unlike conventional planetariums, which are limited to showing the night sky as it appears from various points on the surface of the Earth at various dates, the STS could show the sky as it would appear from anywhere within about 100 astronomical units of Earth (about three times the radius of Pluto's orbit). A joystick even allowed the operator to "fly" the theater through space, showing the resulting apparent movement of planets through the sky, though in practice the planetarium presentations were always pre-programmed.
The STS was actually delivered with a flawed mirror inside. Spitz could not make a replacement and install it in time for the debut so a local amateur telescope maker was called-upon to make a new one.
The STS was used for many years but has been replaced by a more modern projector.
For projecting movies onto the dome the San Diego Hall of Science approached IMAX to adapt their large-screen format. There were technical problems with adapting the IMAX system for use in the center of a dome but IMAX was willing to address them. The San Diego Hall of Science called the new system OMNIMAX but IMAX has since renamed the system IMAX Dome. Even though the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center--which coined the original name--now uses the new name, many theaters still call it OMNIMAX.
It was originally planned that presentations could combine images from the planetarium's star and planet projectors with scenes from OMNIMAX films, but this presented many practical problems and was never fully realized.
The planetarium opened in 1973 as the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Science Center showing two features, Voyage to the Outer Planets (a combined planetarium show and OMNIMAX film produced by Graphic Films) and the OMNIMAX film Garden Isle (by Roger Tilton Films) on a double bill.
In addition to setting a new standard for planetariums the science center was a pioneer in modern science museums. Following the example set four years earlier by the Exploratorium, all exhibits in the science center were required to have something for visitors to manipulate or otherwise participate in. The combination of a planetarium, IMAX Dome theater and interactive science exhibits is now a common thread with most major science museums. However, by the late 1990s the science center had become small and outdated compared to newer science museums. In 1998 the science center was expanded and modernized, and then dwarfed the planetarium/theater, hence the name change.
The museum is named after aviation pioneer Reuben H. Fleet, who founded the U.S. Air Mail service. Fleet's company, Consolidated Aircraft, built several of the famous aircraft of World War II, including the B-24 Liberator and PBY Catalina.