The cutting-edge returns to the Burke Baker Planetarium, where astronauts once trained

Think back to the technology of the late 1980s: corded phones, boom boxes, cathode color TVs. In this era, it’s tough to imagine how anyone achieved the remarkable feat of traveling to space and orbiting the Earth without WiFi or contemporary computers. But Americans did it, and we made history!

Alan Shepard

Alan Shepard was the second person and first American to travel into space. He reached a height of 116 statute miles in 1961.

Now imagine what it must have been like being in space, orbiting the Earth fast enough to circle all of humanity in 90 minutes. It’s cold, it’s dark, and it’s strange. You’re already disoriented in this zero-gravity, off-world environment. Not much room for error in your flimsy aluminum ship, and not much of a view.


When you look out the window, you never know whether you’ll see something familiar or some other constellation only visible to Australia. Even easily-recognizable constellations like Ursa Major can be tough to identify when they’re upside-down and you can only see through a tiny porthole. And what if your navigation equipment went dark? How would you find your way?

Navigating and orienting the space shuttle back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s was no easy feat, but with the help of HMNS VP of Astronomy and Physical Sciences Dr. Carolyn Sumners and the Burke Baker Planetarium, astronauts could practice finding their way under strange skies. As a partner with NASA, Sumners’s three-hour stellar orienteering course was required learning for every candidate astronaut aspiring to touch space.


“The big problem was we had to limit their view to small regions, and they had to be able to find stars in areas you cannot see in Houston,” Sumners said. “We would show them a patch of sky and ask, ‘What do you recognize?’”

The original training program began with Sumners using a Spitz projector, a bulky analog contraption set on cross-braced arms that required the exchange of “star balls” for different views of the sky. The Challenger crew trained using this equipment in ’86, Sumners said. When the Evans & Sutherland Digistar 1 digital projector was installed in ’88, lessons were much easier. (Incidentally, Evans & Sutherland also developed NASA flight simulators used by astronauts at the Johnson Space Center.)


Sumners worked closely with every crew that went into space in the ‘80s and ‘90s, working on their orienteering skills. Her class was so popular and effective, crews would occasionally drop by to brush up or re-test, or just to stop in and say hello (and made an impression when they did).

“The Apollo crew would pop in,” Sumners said. “Many of them were ex-military, so they had the buzz-cut look to them. A lot of gawking went on by the staff.”

With the advent of more reliable digital technology, crews don’t train with Sumners anymore, but partnership with NASA continues, as does her business ties to Evans & Sutherland. The newly-renovated planetarium will feature the world’s first True 8K digital projection system, the Digistar 5, and it was developed by E&S! It’s the clearest, brightest picture of space anywhere on Earth, with software that will allow audiences to see the stars not only in unfamiliar orientations near to our home planet, but from anywhere in the known universe.

ISS aurora

Coupling this projection technology with images from NASA, Sumners expects to bring audiences experiences like the view of the Aurora Borealis from a fish-eye camera mounted on hull of the International Space Station, fed directly through the Cloud.

“They should work beautifully together,” Sumners said.

Astronauts may no longer need orienteering courses, but it’s likely the clarity of this cutting-edge technology will blow even those who have been to space out of this world.

History of the HMNS Guild

Today’s post is written by Maryellen Mathews and Grace Kelly, two of our HMNS volunteers. They write about the history of the museum and volunteer guild. For more information about HMNS history, click here.

Origins of the Museum

The Houston Museum and Scientific Society was founded in 1909 “to establish and maintain a free institution for the people, for education, and for science.”  In 1914, it persuaded the City of Houston to purchase part of the collection assembled by naturalist Henry P. Attwater (for whom the Attwater’s greater prairie chicken is named).

Philanthropist Sigmund Westheimer purchased the remainder of the Attwater collection in 1922 and donated it to the City of Houston.  By 1943, the Museum collection, including the donated collection of John E.T. Milsaps and others, comprised some 17,000 items.

The collection was originally housed in the City Auditorium, then the Central Library and finally in a building on the grounds of the Houston Zoo (where the Tropical Bird House is now located). In 1946, a non-profit corporation, the Museum of Natural History of Houston, was formed to manage the collection.

In 1959, the Museum negotiated a ninety-nine year lease with the City of Houston for its present location. The Museum received a gift of $250,000 from philanthropist Burke Baker, which formed the basis of the planetarium named in his honor. In 1960, the name was changed to the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Construction of the Museum at the new location began in 1964 and was completed in 1969.

The Founding of the Guild

Rosalee Smith Maffitt was a member of the Junior League of Houston who worked as a volunteer at the Museum. When she began, the Museum was still located on the grounds of the Houston Zoo. She envisioned a museum with the potential to become a renowned institution for the presentation of science to the general public and as a source of  significant scientific research. Her goal was to create a core of interested people who would volunteer at and support the Museum in order to bring it to the forefront of local attention.

On March 16, 1950, at the Cohen House on the campus of Rice Institute, Mrs. Maffitt, together with the then Museum Director, John Vines, and thirty-nine ladies met to discuss their goals and strategy for improving the Museum. The name that they gave their organization was the Museum of Natural History Guild. At that meeting, a list of Museum departments was created, each with its own chairman, co-chair and agenda. Each department was given specific assignments to be completed by the next meeting. Each member was to select one specific project and one general project before leaving that meeting and dues were set at one dollar per year. Mr. Vines also solicited suggestions on ways to improve the Museum.

Contracts were made with the local and neighborhood newspapers to carry notices of summer classes for children. Announcements of these classes were also broadcast on the radio.

Increasing Public Awareness

To increase interest in the Museum by the Houston public, speeches were made to civic organizations and schools, and posters were given to municipal departments, libraries and schools.

The Ways and Means Committee had several money-making projects, including selling ant houses, fish bowls and engagement calendars for 1951. They also held a very successful used clothing sale. According to the Museum newsletter, the Guild raised $2,050, which went to pay the Museum teacher’s salary (the teacher was paid $290 each month).

The Guild also produced its first copy of Nature Notes from the Gulf Coast States, edited by Mrs. Maffitt, a quarterly publication that was provided free to Museum members and was financed by advertisements, single issue sales and subscriptions. Each issue included information about how to become a member of the Museum.

Dr. J. Brian Eby, Museum Board President, wrote in 1951 that the Guild was making valuable contributions to the Museum and urged that their work be both continued and expanded.

Volunteer Committee Chairman, Mrs. Edward Pearson, found a supply of dependable, steady workers, half from the Junior League, who volunteered to supplement the Museum staff. A letter was also sent to the HISD School Board requesting $1,000 to help pay for the teacher at the Museum.

In May 1951, Guild members appeared at a City Council meeting to request that the city’s  contribution to the Museum be increased from $9,000 to $12,000 per annum; however, the City Council felt that there were far more pressing issues, such as street maintenance and the building of storm drains.

Expanding the Guild Mission

The Guild focused on simple, easy ways to make the Museum more attractive. At the Guild’s suggestion, the Museum created a summer class schedule that allowed parents to pre-register their children. An immediate objective of the Guild was a new classroom addition, which would expand the children’s programs and serve in the summer as a movie theater for nature movies. This addition at the zoo building was the first step toward the ultimate goal of a new facility.

In 1953, the Trustees asked the Guild to take over the running of the Museum Curio Shop. Its name was changed to the Nature Shop.  The Nature Shop offered materials and books that related to natural science; its existence also spread the word that the Museum was an interesting place to visit. The first Nature Fair was held near Christmas that year and a $300 profit was realized. In that year, the Museum had 174 new members and 280 renewals, plus the Guild had twenty-three new members.

Interested in joining the Guild and volunteering at HMNS? Click here to learn more.

A Note About the Sources:

This installment relies on a Guild history written by Rosalee Smith Maffitt and expanded upon by Mrs. Ann King Wilson. Mrs. Maffitt kept a chronicle of its development from its inception until the 1958/1959 season. As the Guild was approaching its twenty-fifth anniversary, Mrs. Nelson (with the help of Mrs. Moody P. Pearson) researched Guild Board minutes, General Guild meeting notes, as well as newspaper articles to complete the Guild history to 1974. Grace Kelly (Guild President 1992-1993) and I began our quest to bring the Guild history up to date two years ago by again reading the Guild archives and gathering newspaper articles. Please look for more of the history of the Guild soon.

Maryellen Mathews

Guild archives
Handbook of Texas Online (