In 1957, a group of citizens met at the San Diego Hotel and proposed to build a museum of science and industry with a planetarium as the major attraction. In August, they formed the San Diego Hall of Science (later known as the San Diego Space and Science Foundation) and incorporated, naming Dr. Glenn Havens as president.

In 1965, two employees of General Dynamics, Dr. Edward Creutz (a nuclear physicist who was the first director of research for General Dynamics in its General Atomics Division), and James Crooks Jr. (an electronics engineer and early Atlas program pioneer), developed and unveiled a model planetarium with a revolutionary new concept for the proposed science museum. 

This new concept featured a 76-foot dome tilted at a 25-degree angle down in front of the spectators, who were to be seated in tiered rows all facing forward. This was to give the illusion of being suspended in space. Traditionally, planetariums consisted of a hemispheric dome resting horizontally on the surface, with a star projector protruding from the middle of the circular enclosure; audiences sat in concentric circles around the projection system.

Creutz and Crooks, along with other members of the early planning committee (including Preston Fleet, Dr. Bernard Gross and Captain Norval Richardson), realized the enormous risks involved in developing this radical concept. However, they had the determination to succeed.

In 1969, the City and County of San Diego, in a Joint Powers Agreement, established the San Diego Planetarium Authority to oversee the issuance of $3 million in revenue bonds for the development of the Planetarium and Science Center. Spitz Space Systems (then Spitz Laboratories) of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, was awarded the contract to construct a digital computer-controlled “Space Transit Simulator.” This new kind of star-projection system would create a sensation of travel through space and would have the capacity to accurately recreate the star field as it appeared at any time or date and from any location in the solar system—past, present or future.

The tilted dome, which came to be known as the Space Theater, also served as the projection screen for a new large film format (70mm) called IMAX. These giant-screen films were projected onto large, flat screens. OMNIMAXⓇ was the term coined by the Space Theater founders for the giant tilted dome screen and fish-eye effect. 

Named the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Science Center, the facility opened to the public on March 10, 1973. The museum was named after Major Reuben H. Fleet, a pioneer in American aviation. An early military aviator, Fleet was commissioned by President Woodrow Wilson to form the U.S. Air Mail Service, making him Air Mail Pilot #1. Later, he became involved in aircraft manufacturing and moved his company from Buffalo, New York, to San Diego. His firm, Consolidated Aircraft, built many of the famous bombers of World War II, including B-24 Liberators and PBY Catalina Flying Boats. He later sold his company to Vultee aircraft, which in turn changed its name to Convair (Consolidated-Vultee). Major Fleet died on October 29, 1975, at the age of 88. His family remains strong supporters of the Science Center.

The Science Center exhibits area grew slowly in the shadow of the Space Theater but has blossomed into a first-class facility. A multimillion dollar expansion project completed in May 1998—just two months after the Fleet Center’s 25th anniversary—tripled exhibit space and doubled the size of the facility. The Fleet Science Center now houses multiple exhibit galleries, which offer a frequently changing array of 100-plus fun, interactive science and technology exhibits for all ages. The Fleet boasts a robust collection of permanent exhibits and also hosts major traveling exhibitions. The Fleet added a 23-passenger motion simulator ride that took passengers on amazing adventures and the Nierman Challenger Learning Center, a realistic Mission Control mock-up and space station. Both have been retired from active service. The expansion also included two state-of-the-art classrooms; the Community Forum, a multi-purpose facility for lectures, meetings and social functions; and the Entry Rotunda, featuring a Ticket Counter, Galileo’s Café (now named Craveology) and the North Star Science Store. The name of the facility was changed to the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center to reflect these additions.

In 2012, the Fleet completed a multimillion-dollar renovation to the Space Theater, now known as the Eugene Heikoff and Marilyn Jacobs Heikoff Dome Theater. The Heikoff Giant Dome Theater features the world’s first NanoSeam™ Dome in an IMAX theater, new seating and a state-of-the-art 16,000-watt surround sound system. The Fleet’s Giant Dome Theater was the first in the country to share a digital planetarium with an IMAX projector, following the installation of a digital GSX™ projection system from Global Immersion, which offers a full-dome theater experience. The Heikoff Giant Dome Theater runs multiple incredible IMAX films daily, in addition to popular monthly planetarium shows and other educational programs.

In 2014, the Fleet embarked on a number of studies and community conversations to examine its place in San Diego. The results of those studies informed a strategic plan that the museum staff has been actively working to implement. Through that work, the Fleet has transformed from a museum in the park to a countywide organization devoted to building and supporting communities rich in science learning. The Fleet’s relationship with schools has expanded to provide integrated teacher professional development, science workshops and afterschool programs in support of both teachers and students. The Fleet also has partnered with community organizations to bring science into San Diego neighborhoods through the 52 Weeks of Science Program so that all San Diegans have access to the transformative power of science. Additionally, Fleet staff have been working to create new experiences that provide transformational moments at the science center. In 2016, the organization rebranded as the Fleet Science Center to reflect its expanded vision and offerings. The Fleet Science Center connects people of all ages to the possibilities and power of science to create a better future.

Located in beautiful Balboa Park at 1875 El Prado, two blocks south of the San Diego Zoo on Park Boulevard, the Fleet Science Center is a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to realizing a San Diego where everyone is connected to the power of science. The Fleet is the most-visited museum in Balboa Park.

IMAXⓇ is a registered trademark of IMAX Corporation.

Group of men in hard hats posing in from of the 1970s construction zone sign
Aerial shot of the 1970s construction of the Fleet building
Construction of the dome theater in the 1970s
Commemorative gold coin of the fleet science center