Status Report

David M. Brown Planetarium Threatend With Closure – How you Can Help Prevent That

By SpaceRef Editor
September 25, 2010
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David M. Brown Planetarium Threatend With Closure – How you Can Help Prevent That

In 2008 Arlington’s planetarium was named for Captain David M. Brown, an Arlington native and a product of McKinley Elementary, Swanson Middle, and Yorktown High School. After graduating from the College of William and Mary and earning a medical degree from Eastern Virginia Medical School, Captain Brown went on to become a Navy aviator who could land a jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the night, a flight surgeon, and a NASA astronaut. Captain Brown perished along with the rest of the crew when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry on February 1, 2003.

The Friends of Arlington’s David M. Brown Planetarium, Inc., was chartered on May 10, 2010, with a mission to save and sustain the David M. Brown Planetarium located in Arlington, Virginia. The 40-year-old educational institution and prestigious community asset was slated for closure on June 30, 2010, due to an inability to fund approximately $400,000 in one-time upgrades required by the Arlington Public Schools (APS) in order to retain the planetarium’s instructional value as determined by the Superintendent of Schools.

Arlington’s David M. Brown Planetarium is the only freestanding planetarium in the National Capital Region, and one of very few in the entire nation that is directly accessible to everyone. As such, it sets Arlington County and its school system apart from all surrounding jurisdictions. It would be short-sighted to abandon this elite distinction that serves so many, and we are dedicated to facilitating an alternate solution to address the one-time capital investment that is needed to avoid a permanent loss to the community.

The Arlington School Board has delayed the closure for one year in order to provide The Friends of Arlington’s David M. Brown Planetarium with some brief time to raise the funds identified by the Superintendent as necessary to keep the planetarium open. To meet that challenge we have launched a Save the Planetarium campaign. We expect the Superintendent to offer us a Memorandum of Understanding that imposes an aggressive fundraising schedule with benchmarks of approximately $250,000 raised by December 31, 2010, and $400,000 by July 31, 2011, in order to evaluate our progress in line with APS’s own deadlines for decision-making during the next budget cycle.

The Arlington Community Foundation (ACF), a well-respected, tax-exempt local organization, has established a fund within the Foundation to support our mission. This allows our immediate solicitation and acceptance of tax-deductible donations to save the planetarium, as opposed to suffering a significant delay pending the receipt of our own 501(c)(3) designation. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that we will be successful in meeting the Superintendent’s ambitious targets, or that we will be able to persuade him to modify his challenging conditions.

Arlington’s planetarium was conceived and constructed to be an educational resource that would inspire both students and the general public alike. Recent studies have concluded that the planetarium offers “outstanding potential for enhancing classroom instruction” (National Science Teachers Association Science Program Improvement Review, 2007) and “is a unique vibrant asset of not only the Arlington Public School system, but the people of the County of Arlington” (George Mason University Assessment, 2009). The planetarium was named to honor Navy Captain David M. Brown, an Arlington astronaut who perished along with the rest of the crew when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry in 2003.

Unlike the Smithsonian’s 233-seat Einstein Planetarium located inside the National Air and Space Museum downtown, Arlington’s 68-seat chamber allows patrons to actually participate with a science teacher in the interactive instruction and unscripted discussions that are regularly presented. It is this easy accessibility and superior educational experience that draws approximately 25,000 visitors — primarily schoolchildren — to the planetarium each year from at least eight neighboring jurisdictions across two states and the District of Columbia, proving that although it is a local treasure, Arlington’s planetarium also is a truly regional resource.

While the planetarium’s opto-mechanical star projector and rudimentary 35mm slide-based animation remain fully operational, replacement with a modern, high-definition digital system will permit access to the current supply of contemporary multi-media offerings that are being produced for planetariums today. If Arlington’s David M. Brown Planetarium had the ability to project full-dome video, it would be able to display the same rich content as the Einstein Planetarium, yet also provide the superior educational experience of inquiry-based instruction in an immersive classroom that neither the Einstein nor desktop computers connected to the Internet can offer.

The planetarium currently is underutilized for its many wonderful cross-curriculum and interdisciplinary instructional possibilities as well. For example, engaging lessons in English and history are available in addition to the more obvious science topics such as astronomy, physics, and space.

We also see an overlooked opportunity to include the planetarium in the new County-Schools Collaboration efforts that recently were formalized in a joint Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Arlington County Board and School Board in November, 2009. The planetarium has a long history of public showings and classes presented through the county’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Resources. Located at the edge of Ballston, the planetarium also aligns perfectly with Arlington’s promotion of Ballston as the epicenter of science and technology research, and it serves as a concrete example for the Think Arlington promotional campaign. Yet the planetarium appears to have been left out of the initial collaboration activities.

Finally, the planetarium is not at all marketed. While APS always will have priority, the class field trip window generally limits student use to between 10:00AM and 2:00PM on school days, leaving the planetarium vacant and available for corporate, private, or general public use at all other times, and at any time during the summer months.

Source: 2010 Strategic Plan.

More information can be found at You can follow at saveplanetarium on Twitter and here on Facebook.

SpaceRef staff editor.