Steven Smith reaches for the stars nearly every day.
And he gets them, along with a chorus of oohs and aahs that chimes in, as if on cue, when Smith darkens the sky and punches the "stars" button in the Arlington Public Schools Planetarium.
The domed ceiling starts out ice-blue, sinks to deep black and suddenly is covered with a spangle of tiny lights. Smith tells the audience of fourth-graders how it works. The light escapes through a strainer-like network of pin holes in a spherical projector. No magic, just lights and cameras and a darkened ceiling.
No matter; the effect is magical. He flips the "stars" button and the oohs and aahs erupt. Smith waits. "A pause for effect," he confides.
After 15 years as director of the planetarium, Smith knows how to work his audience -- whether it is composed of 10-year-olds studying the solar system, 10th-graders tracing Greek myths through constellations, or Arlington parents and children looking for entertainment.
The Arlington planetarium, nestled in a crook of the modernistic Education Center on North Quincy Street, is the only school planetarium in the area that runs a regular series of programs for the public.
While Alexandria and Fairfax county schools have planetariums -- there are nine in Fairfax -- those facilities are used primarily by schoolchildren and visiting scout troops.
In addition to the 22 programs Smith shows for students, he schedules three or four public shows each year. The current program, "Springtime of the Universe," began Oct. 5.
The planetarium illuminates more than science, Smith says.
One program, geared toward fifth-graders, illustrates poetry about the sky and stars. While a narrator recites Emily Dickinson's "I'll tell you how the sun rose, a ribbon at a time," Smith makes the sun rise, in stripes of colored light, across the planetarium ceiling.
In the 15 years since the planetarium was built, the shows have evolved, changing as space exploration provides new data, Smith said.
Planetarium techniques have matured, too, in time to entertain the "Star Wars" generation weaned on splashy, expensive special effects.
By using several of his 17 hand-built projectors at once, Smith can make an atom bulge and pulse instead of merely hovering on the ceiling. Programs for the public -- created from kits that cost between $90 and $600 -- are elaborate, scripted displays with continual visual effects, narration and music.
For his school-aged audiences, Smith brings his cosmic conclusions down to earth. As a slide of Saturn's rings flashed on the ceiling above a class of Manassas fourth-graders last week, one student piped, "Could you walk on them?"
Smith paused. "It would be like trying to walk on a gravel driveway floating in space," he said.
Later, the mysteries of the solar system having been explained, Smith brightened the sky to blue again and faded the universe back to a round room full of wires, cameras, projectors and 25 whispering 10-year-olds.
Even in an age of video games, flashy films and numerous electronic diversions, people still find planetariums appealing, he said. "It's a strange place to be. You see stars in the middle of the daytime. I guess everyone wants to be in another world."