Tucson science center cuts hours due to state’s budget woes

May 26, 2009

By hammersmith

Flandrau to fall into state’s fiscal black hole

Phil Villarreal, Arizona Daily Star, 5-23-2009

520-573-4130; pvillarreal@azstarnet.com


Come June 1, the world stops turning. The stars cease to shine and the moon quits orbiting the Earth. Well, all that will still go on in the cosmos, but no longer in the building where 1.5 million people have learned about astronomy by seeing, doing and imagining.

The University of Arizona’s 33-year-old Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium is set to close a week from Monday as the UA seeks to save $200,000 a year and streamline operations. No longer will school buses drop off excited kids who hope to glance through a telescope for the first time in their young lives. No longer will parents smile as they watch their kids marvel at a display that shows just how tiny their planet is when compared with the sun. No longer will crowds of kids in the 135-seat auditorium squeal with delight when the massive projector, nicknamed Hector Vector Star Projector, emerges from the center of the room to cast its galactic displays on the domed ceiling monitor.

“I feel bad for the kids who won’t get to come here,” said Hayden Dunn, 11, who visited the planetarium Thursday with his Craycroft Elementary School classmates. “It’s fun here, and there’s lots of stuff to do.”

Flandrau will still educate kids through a traveling outreach program dubbed “mobile planetarium,” and a permanent planetarium may even resurface Downtown if the science center conceived as part of Rio Nuevo ever materializes.

Nine employees will be laid off, some at the end of May and others at the end of June, and a skeleton crew of 10 part-time workers will stay on at the facility. The crew will be working mostly on the education and outreach initiatives. One employee who won’t be returning is planetarium Director Michael Magee, 50, who plans to take early retirement and look for another UA job. “With all the astronomy that goes on here, to not have a planetarium is just absurd,” he said.

Navy Lt. Mike Matagrano, 38, was sad to hear the planetarium is closing. He hung out at Flandrau in the late ’90s when he was a UA student — sometimes catching the rock ‘n’ roll laser-light shows that stopped in 2000 — and brought his daughter, Gracie, 3, for one last visit before he ships out to the Persian Gulf next week. “This is her first experience at the planetarium,” Matagrano said after he twirled Gracie on a spin ride meant to teach kids about angular momentum.

“I’m sad to see it go away.” Teacher Arlene Rich took her second-grade students from Sierra Vista’s Imagine Charter School on a field trip to Flandrau on Thursday to get them excited about astronomy. “This is really sad,” Rich said. “All these exhibits are really great at giving kids hands-on ways to learn concepts.”

Katie Lopez will miss the planetarium as a relic of her youth, an employer and an outlet to reach youngsters and share her enthusiasm for astronomy. Lopez, an energetic, witty public speaker who earned a degree in engineering mathematics in December, narrates up to eight interactive shows a day in the auditorium. Lopez drew laughs from a roomful of fifth-graders by making a joke about the sun, rather than the Jonas Brothers, being the biggest, hottest thing in the solar system. The kids let out a collective “whoa!” when the screen gave the illusion that the entire theater was a spacecraft visiting each of the planets in the solar system.

Lopez, 23, is bitter because the planetarium is one of her favorite places. The Sahuaro High School grad has been going to the planetarium regularly since she was a kid, and she said going there in her youth made her want to become an astronaut. Lopez, who has worked at Flandrau for six years, said kids won’t be able to get as much out of the portable planetarium. Understandably, Lopez’s voice trembles as she speaks. “There is no reason for this institution to close,” she said. “Why are we closing?”