Above and Beyond: Why Houston's Planetarium Is the Best in the World

Houston’s NASA-approved planetarium earns “best in the galaxy” bragging rights.

Once the unprecedented pinnacle of sports stadium infrastructure, Houston’s original Astrodome still stands today, an abandoned homage to a bygone area.

Not far away, however, sits another city institution that houses, in its most literal form, another “Astrodome.” Like the original Houston venue, it’s setting a global standard for technology and multimedia production.  

Carolyn Sumners, Houston Museum of Natural Science ​Astronomy and Physics vice president, and an adjunct professor at Rice University, spearheaded the effort to maximize the potential of the internationally renowned destination’s Burke Baker Planetarium, which opened in 1964. Just seven years before, a 20-something Sumners—armed with little more than an astronomy degree from Vanderbilt—arrived at the museum for her first day on the job. She’s been there ever since.

Sumners had an ambitious goal: to put to rest, once and for all, the pixelated—and hardly realistic—planetarium experiences of yesteryear. She imagined one that offered an immersive, visual adventure that came as close as possible to what an astronaut would see in space.

“What we wanted, if at all possible...was for the experience to be the resolution of the human eye,” said Sumners; a challenge considering that neither the laser projectors nor the software needed was available at the time. Considering the planetarium’s technology is already used by NASA to train astronauts on skills like “celestial navigation”—that is, the ability to orient oneself by identifying star fields—a state-of-the-art facility located in Houston would be the most logical to set a new standard. After all, she said, “this is Space City.”

Houston Museum Natural Science Planetarium

When envisioning what the planetarium’s night sky might look like, the answer was simple: West Texas.

“[We wanted] a lonely road, 10 million miles from nowhere...where it’s so dark at night you feel like you could read the newspaper by [the light of] the Milky Way,” Sumners said. “We wanted that sky.” 

That’s exactly, what they got, too. It required 10 state-of-the-art Sony laser projectors, 20 graphics-optimized computers and one master processor to stitch together one seamless, 360-degree image made of more than 50 million unique pixels, giving it the virtual feel and out-of-this-world impact Sumners had hoped for: the Burke Baker Planetarium became “the world’s first True8K Theater.” To put that in perspective, it’s nearly 10 times the picture quality of the Jumbotron at Houston’s NRG Stadium.

After nearly 50 years at the museum, Sumners is managing the creative direction and production of the planetarium’s programs—from developing team-building “missions” and helping astronauts find their way through the galaxy to scripting the forthcoming “Tales of a Time Traveler,” which features "Doctor Who’s" David Tennant.

Among stargazing and touring the International Space Station, guests can venture to Mars or revisit the Titanic, all in a three-dimensional, better-than-IMAX virtual world that feels impossibly tangible.

“Kids will reach up and try to grab the stars,” Sumners said. 

And having the ability to inspire future generations to ‘reach for the stars’? That might be the planetarium’s most impressive achievement yet.