Longtime Planetarium Director Reflects on a Career Spent Under the Stars

Troy Fedderson, U. of Nebraska at Lincoln

Jack Dunn
August 11, 2014

Jack Dunn, who led the Mueller Planetarium at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln for 43 years, is retiring this month at age 67. Here is his story, as told to Monica Vendituoli.

My neighbor, who became my adviser and mentor, was a professor of astronomy and geology at Midland College, in Nebraska, where he designed a planetarium that opened in 1965. His name was Dr. Gilbert Lueninghoener. I was one of his students, and he inspired me to go into astronomy and planetarium work. Dr. Lueninghoener taught me the concepts that have guided my planetarium work since then.

The old concept of a planetarium was a place to see the night sky. When I started running the Mueller Planetarium at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, in 1971, only a few probes had gone out in space, and most of the images were in black and white. Back then, I used a projector and slides and other in-house-created special effects.

Today, using computer visualizations and fulldome photography and design, I can project images covering an entire dome. Those projections help people visualize science. The principles behind writing entertaining show scripts are the same as years ago, but the technology and science are completely different. I’ve had to re-educate myself many times and learn through other colleagues.

For instance, a friend I had in Australia introduced me to a more economical way to project fulldome. He knew someone else in Australia who had invented a new projection system and taught me how to make one for Mueller, using only email and the Internet.

My favorite part of my job has been the people I’ve met. Over the years, thousands of students have come to shows. In the last few years, we’ve had two couples per year propose in the planetarium. I would stop a show and claim there was an issue with the projector. I would then turn the projector back on, and in the sky there would be the proposal written in the stars.

I’ve never had a staff of people working for me other than students and volunteers. I’ve enjoyed mentoring them and seeing what they have gone on to do. One of the student volunteers who built special-­effects projectors for me many years ago, Larry Stepp, is now the telescope director of the Thirty Meter Telescope project in Hawaii, a project of several nations. The telescope will be the world’s largest. Volunteers have been very helpful, as the planetarium has never had a lot of funding.

Funding for the equipment used in building the fulldome system as well as funding for the purchase of some of the fulldome shows has come from the Friends of the University of Nebraska State Museum. My hope has been that by getting more members of the community to come to the planetarium, I would get the community more interested in science. If people are aware of how exciting and interesting science can be, as voters they can make more informed decisions.

In retirement I will be volunteering at a new planetarium in South Carolina that will be headed by my wife, who has been finishing her Ph.D. in astrophysics at another university. I always enjoy spreading positive messages about science.