The Planetarium at Hartnell College has been enchanting audiences with the wonders of astronomy and space science for 60 years. Originally built in 1962 as a part of the new $1.9 million Merrill Hall, the original J. Frederic Ching Planetarium was named after a former president of Hartnell. Looking toward the future, the facility reflected the great public interest in space science and astronomy, brought about by the burgeoning Space Race. The planetarium served the needs of the college, acting primarily as a lab space for astronomy classes. The original projector, a Spitz A-3P, was capable of projecting the stars, planets, moon and sun.Its first director, Rear Admiral (retired) C.E. Dickinson, managed the planetarium in addition to his primary job as instructor. In 1976, following the retirement of “The Admiral”, the college sought to expand the role of the planetarium in the community and subsequently hired a new full time planetarium director, David Aguilar.

Pictures of projectors

Under David’s tenure the planetarium flourished. While the original seating arrangement held 160 people, the planetarium often hosted 170 people or more. David skillfully crafted custom special effects using a series of home-built projectors; all managed from two special effects control panels he built himself. David eventually left in 1980 to take up the directorship of the Fiske Planetarium in Boulder, CO. Following David’s departure the role of Planetarium Director passed to Andy Newton.

Andy Newton’s tenure saw the exploration of the last of the gas giants by Voyager probes, the passing of Halley’s Comet, and the launch of the Hubble space telescope. Each event celebrated by and brought to the public of Salinas in a series of special events hosted by the planetarium. The J. Frederic Ching Planetarium continued to serve the Salinas area, hosting thousands of people at hundreds of shows. After keeping the original planetarium projector ("Sparky") and all the attendant equipment going for many years, Andy Newton wrote a grant to upgrade the facility. This $150K renovation, completed in 2004, added new seating, lighting, and sound sytems, and replaced the original star projector with the Konica Minolta Mediaglobe I. This first generation digital projection system allowed for the showing of "fulldome" visuals and pre-produced movies, designed to be projected onto a dome.  In 2005 Andy Kreyche was hired to operate this new facility.

Continuing the tradition of educational outreach to schools and the public, the "new" Andy included hands-on demonstrations, helped expand experiences for visiting school groups, added a Kids Show to regular Friday evening public programs, and collaborated with community groups. After 10 years, Andy Kreyche left Hartnell in 2015, with Andrew Lindsey taking over in February of 2016. Lindsay oversaw the last days of the original J. Frederic Ching Planetarium and played a vital role in transitioning to a brand new, larger facility.

As a part of Measure H, a $131M infrastructure improvement bond for the college, a new $29M science building was built, opening in 2017. The current planetarium is larger in both dome size and seating capacity. and utilizes the Konica Minolta MediaGlobe-III projector, along with more sophisticated lighting and audio systems. With the opening of the new facility, the planetarium is now used as the exclusive classroom for all in-person astronomy classes. At the end of 2017, Andrew Lindsay left Hartnell, succeded by Wayne Foster in January of 2018. Wayne left at the start of the Covd pandemic and the planetarium remained in stasis until the spring of 2022, when Andy Kreyche returned to Hartnell. Moving forward, the planetarium will continue its tradition of public education and otreach to the Salinas Valley community.