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Courtesy of Adler Planetarium

Adler President Paul Knappenberger said he's accomplished what he wanted to at the planetarium and will retire at the end of this year.

Adler president looks back on a lifetime of stargazing

by Stephanie Sunata
Nov 20, 2012

After 22 years at the helm of the Adler Planetarium, Paul Knappenberger is ready to hand over the reins at year-end. When he announced his retirement plan earlier this year, the astronomer said he’s accomplished what he set out to do -— to make the Adler a world-leading astronomical institution.

During his tenure, the Adler completed major projects such as the Sky Pavilion, a lakefront facility that houses galleries, a telescope terrace and a restaurant. One of the most recent projects is the high-tech Grainger Sky Theater, which takes visitors on virtual tours of the universe.

Though the board hasn’t yet announced who his replacement will be, Knappenberger is looking forward to retirement. Like any grandparent, he wants to spoil his grandchildren. But he’s also running for another presidency, this time with the International Planetarium Society Inc.

Knappenberger shared his memories from more than four decades of astronomy experience: how he started studying astronomy, the unique way he watched the Apollo missions and some fond memories of his time at the Adler.

MEDILL: How did you get into astronomy?

KNAPPENBERGER: I was in college. I was a math major at Franklin & Marshall College and my senior year I took an astronomy course. We had a guest lecturer one day. He came from the University of Virginia and his name was Dr. Fredrick—Larry Fredrick.

He said to me over dinner, “Drive down to the University of Virginia one weekend. Let me show you around.”

When I drove down to Charlottesville in Virginia, Larry picked me up and drove me 20 miles south of the university to a mountain. And up an old dirt road to the top of this mountain where there was a hole in the ground.

He said, “We’re going to pour concrete foundation for a new telescope and observatory here. If you come here as a grad student, you’ll be right in the ground floor of helping us build the observatory.”

That, to me, was far more exciting than sitting in an office somewhere crunching numbers. So that was what really drew me to it.

What is one of your favorite memories as an astronomer?

There are probably several that stand out. When I was a grad student at the University of Virginia there was a very bright comet in the morning sky. Ikeya-Seki was its name and it was fantastic. The head of the comet was down in the horizon and the tail reached almost all the way to the top of the sky. I wanted to photograph it, so that really started what’s turned out to be a life-long hobby of photography for me. Especially astrophotography. So that one clearly stands out in my mind.

You also have witnessed many space missions from a telescope here on Earth, including the Apollo missions. Can you walk us through your reactions when you saw the oxygen leaking from Apollo 13?

On Apollo 11 I was in Atlanta, Ga., operating a telescope there at Fernbank Science Center. The NBC TV affiliate in Atlanta wanted to see if they could get an image of Apollo as it was going out to the moon on TV. So we developed a special way of doing that using a device called an image intensifier tube. We could track the spacecraft out until it got fairly close to the moon.

We did that for 11 and 12 and we got pretty good by the end of Apollo 12. We noticed clouds that formed around the spacecraft. We found out from NASA those were water dumps where they were dumping wastewater out of the spacecraft.

By Apollo 13, they sent us a list of the scheduled water dumps. We were tracking and videotaping Apollo 13 and we saw this cloud form around the spacecraft. We looked on our schedule and it wasn’t a scheduled water dump.

We called our contact at NASA and said, “Hey, we just saw on videotape this cloud. We don’t see a scheduled water dump.” And the guy said, “No, we don’t have a scheduled water dump. Send us that video tape right away.”

We took it out to the airport right away and sent it to Huntsville, the NASA establishment there. I don’t know to this day whether it was helpful in them analyzing what it was that went wrong. Maybe it was a piece of evidence that helped.

So that unscheduled water vapor that you saw was the oxygen tank?

What we were seeing was the oxygen tank explosion.

How did you become the president of the Adler Planetarium?

A couple years later, Dr. Fredrick, the guy who I met at Franklin & Marshall, called me up one day and said, “Hey Paul. The state of Virginia is looking to build a science museum and they want to hire a director. And I thought of you.”

I went up to Richmond for and interview and the board ended up hiring me. So I became the first director, or the founding director, of the Science Museum of Virginia. I was there for 18 1/2 years.

One day I get a call from Joe Chamberlain, who was the president of the Adler Planetarium, and said, “Paul I’m retiring here in Chicago and the Adler’s looking for a new president and I gave them your name. Would you be interested?”

I said, “Not really, Joe. I still have a lot of work to do here in Richmond. We’re only about two-thirds the way through our plans.”

He wouldn’t take no for an answer. Over the course of the next year, I guess, they convinced me that coming to Chicago and being the president of the Adler was a good thing to do. That was in 1991.

What has been one of your favorite memories of Adler?

On the first week on the job they sent me to Los Angeles aboard a ship to sail around the tip of Baja California to rendezvous with an eclipse—the longest of the century. 7 1/2 minutes long.

About eight years after I was here, we built that glass pavilion that wraps half way around the original 1930s building that’s here. We opened that in 1999, it had a new theater in it. So that was pretty exciting.

Most recently, we opened the Grainger Sky Theater. That’s the most technologically advanced planetarium theater in the world right now. It’s a place we can take our audiences out on virtual trips through the universe—watch a black hole or look at a star explode in a super nova or watch two galaxies collide and merge.

When you first came to the Adler, what were your goals for the planetarium?

Well, the board and I agreed the Adler was a well-respected planetarium in the 1980s and early 1990s. But the world was changing pretty rapidly and they wanted the Adler to make sure it was a leading science institution at the turn of the century—at the start of the 21st century.

So my challenge was, and I relished it, was how to convert the Adler from a good museum back in the early 1990s into a world-leading science center of the 21st century. I feel pretty good that we’ve made great progress towards that. So I think that was my biggest goal—to bring Adler to the forefront of the planetarium world and to make it one of the leading cultural institutions here in Chicago.

Why did you decide to leave the Adler?

Well, I’ve been here now for 21 1/2 years and I turned 70 on my last birthday. When I turned 65, my wife said, “Well, don’t you think it’s time to start thinking about retirement?” We have four children and six grandchildren and we need to spoil those grandchildren while they’re still young. So I started thinking about it five years ago. I told the board that when we completed this recent lift-off campaign and got the major projects accomplished that it was going to fund, that would be a good time for me to retire and it would allow them to bring in a new president with fresh ideas.

What do you plan on doing in your retirement?

I’m running for the president of the International Planetarium Society, which is a group of around 450 planetaria from around the world. I helped found that organization 40 years ago. It would be a six year commitment if I won the election, which I will know at the end of December.

So if I win the election it’s going to keep me busy for the next six years. If I don’t, then I’ll be paddling my kayak, hiking in the mountains of Virginia and spoiling my grandchildren.

Do you know when the board will name your successor?

They are hoping to have a decision made before the end of December, which is when I will retire. So, I hope they do.