Arlington's Brown Planetarium targeted in budget cuts

By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; B04

The David M. Brown Planetarium in Arlington County is on the chopping block this budget year, but some community members are preparing to fight the plan.

The 40-year-old planetarium, owned by the county school system, needs about $500,000 in upgrades in addition to about $250,000 to staff and operate, according to school officials.

Those are "additional dollars that are not available now," said Mark Johnston, assistant superintendent for instruction.

The planetarium is named for an astronaut killed in the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. His brother, Douglas R. Brown, is fighting the shutdown, and the Brown family wrote the school board this week urging it not to close the facility.

"This is the 10th-richest county in the country, and you want to kill a planetarium with the space program right at your feet?" Douglas Brown asked.

James Gartner, a member of Friends of the David M. Brown Planetarium, said his group thinks there are alternatives to shutting the planetarium or retrofitting it as a classroom.

"The notion that you can't buy a [star] projector so you have to shut down the existing facility is missing a step," Gartner said. He suggested the planetarium remain open with no upgrades while his group works to secure a funding partnership with a local or national science group that would pay for the improvements.

Harold A. Geller, an astronomy professor at George Mason University, co-wrote a study in May that suggested digitizing the planetarium, replacing the seats and improving the programming to better align it with the Virginia Standards of Learning. But, he said Tuesday, "it wasn't like the planetarium cannot operate without these things."

The planetarium is open to the public, schools and other groups for programs throughout the year.

"You can see a picture in your textbook of Mars, but [the planetarium has] a video they shoot up on the ceiling and show how it makes its way across the sky, the relationship to other planets," said Les Hambridge, who takes his fifth-grade students from Arlington's Our Savior Lutheran School to the planetarium at least once a year. "They bring it to life."

"Once you close a planetarium, it is awful hard to pick it up again," said Brown's mother, Dorothy M. Brown. "The whole point of it is to inspire young people."

Johnson said that because there are planetariums in the District, such as the Albert Einstein Planetarium at the National Air and Space Museum, the school system would have other options, including new technology in the classroom.

Linda Erdos, an Arlington schools spokeswoman, said: "I wouldn't want anyone to think that the only way to inspire students for future opportunities is through the planetarium. It is happening daily in classrooms throughout the county, and it is happening in a multitude of ways."

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