Heitkamp Planetarium was originally conceived as part of an effort to mark the 125th anniversary of Loras College with the creation of an observatory followed by a larger planetarium.
Initially, the observatory was constructed and financed entirely by donations and campus gifts, whereas the planetarium took longer to fund. Planning for both buildings began in 1962, but the planetarium took on special significance when Professor George Heitkamp passed away in 1964 – his 50th year as a member of the science faculty. A celebration of his service was already in the works at the time of his death, so the planetarium was named in Heitkamp’s honor.
While money was being raised to fund the structure, construction crews were already on campus building Binz Hall, but work was halted for the arrival of a crane from France that was stuck in New York City due to a dock worker strike. Monsignor Dorance Foley, then president of Loras College, negotiated to have the idle workers build the planetarium at a reduced rate while they waited for the crane.
The building was completed at a cost of $82,165, with half of the funds provided by an anonymous donor and opened to the public on May 1, 1966. It hosted over 1,600 visitors in the first month and has continued holding screenings to this day.
In 2019, an honors project by Natalie Droeske (’19), Audrey Miller (’19), Austin Kuchenbecker (’19), Celia da Silva (’19) and Jacob Till (’19), oversaw the fundraising, grant applications and acquisition of a state-of-the-art projector to make it the most advanced planetarium within a 100-mile radius of Dubuque.