Enjoy the Rest Flandrau, We’ll Miss You

Long-time readers of Sky & Telescope might remember the cover story from the March 1975 issue. It was an exciting preview of Tucson’s Flandrau Planetarium, then nearing completion and preparing for a fall opening. The building, exhibits, and Minolta star projector were all state of the art, and it was truly a time when a new night sky would be seen over the city.

The cover story for the March 1975 issue of S&T previewed the then soon-to-open Grace H. Flandrau Planetarium in Tucson, Arizona. After 34 years of operation, the planetarium is now closing its doors.
S&T Illustration
But now, after 34 years, Flandrau will close its doors, a victim of the current world recession. The closure, however, is not unexpected. With this recession generally considered to be the worst since the 1930s, it was pretty obvious that education was going to take a big hit. And the University of Arizona isn’t exempt. The U of A has been a world leader in astronomy for many years. Its achievements in helping establish Kitt Peak National Observatory 50 years ago, in addition to developing its own astronomical facilities on several Artizona mountaintops, are well known. It stands to reason that the university would also become a leader in astronomy education, supporting it at every level from offering people their first look at the Moon through a telescope to running world-class observatories. In these hard financial times, making a convincing argument to maintain Flandrau Planetarium while also establishing a new science center for the public in the city’s downtown development project called Rio Nuevo just wasn’t in the cards.

I’m sad to see Flandrau close. When I visited Tucson in early 1977, Flandrau was on my list of must-sees, and when I relocated here in 1979, Flandrau was the very first university building I visited. While there I met some of the staff, and quickly volunteered to be a speaker. After giving a few “star talks” during which I pointed out the stars and constellations to crowds in the planetarium’s main theatre, I was invited to present a talk on the 200th anniversary of William Herschel’s discovery of Uranus. Before I could do that, however, I wanted to see the planet with Flandrau’s 16-inch reflector. A small group gathered in the early morning of March 13, 1981. We observed Neptune, several globular star clusters in Hercules, the Ring Nebula, and then the planet Herschel discovered exactly 200 years earlier. Uranus looked green and beautiful in that telescope that morning, and I’ve never forgotten the time we shared Herschel’s thrill of discovering a new planet.

My personal memories of Frandrau are legion, but one I still recall with deep affection — my wife, Wendee, and I were married there on March 23, 1997. In exchange for a donation, we took over the building for an entire Sunday afternoon. The ceremony, which took place in the main theatre, included a musical sunset, a bright comet crossing the sky, and special musical selections Wendee and I picked for each other. The guests enjoyed a wedding lunch during which my brother introduced himself as “Gerry Levy of Shoemaker-Levy 9.” The events ended outside with views of a deep partial lunar eclipse, and Comet Hale-Bopp as it swung past the Earth.

It is my hope that the new U of A science center will be completed in the near future, and that the important role played by our beloved Flandrau will live on in spirit. While the closing of Flandrau is a temporary setback, we must take the long view that the future will be better. We want our children’s and grandchildren’s lives to be better than ours, and we want to continue reaching for the stars.

13 thoughts on “Enjoy the Rest Flandrau, We’ll Miss You

  1. Fred ShumanFred from Laurel, Md

    David, love your work, both in astronomy and the written word about astronomy. But I have a nit to pick with something you said. Please don’t propagate this error about the economy being the worst since the 1930’s, when it was demonstrably worse in the early 1980’s than now (unemployment, inflation, interest rates…); and this was within the operating lifetime of the Flandrau. Even under the qualifier “generally considered to be…”–there was a time when the Earth was generally considered to be the center of the universe, but we know otherwise. Anyway, keep on writing, and I’ll keep reading! And know that our children’s and grandchildren’s lives WILL be better than ours, because we will see to it. Heck, you’ve been doing that your whole life!

  2. George Barber

    I feel that the closure of the Flandrau Science Center is a tragic loss to the community of Tucson. We stand to lose a lot more than just a planetarium. That, in it’s own right, is a great blow to the education of our people. Flandrau does so many other things, such as numerous free public star parties at the U of A, their incredible mineral museum, their interactive exhibits teaching all manners of physical sciences, and supporting our students.

    As Dr. Levy mentioned, the Flandrau hosts the only professional-grade telescope open freely to the public within the entire state of Arizona. I am one of the telescope’s operators, and I greatly enjoy the opportunity. Without Flandrau’s support, attendance at the telescope will most likely drop significantly, with less people being able to enjoy the wonders of our universe.

    I feel that we need to band together, and write or email the president and provost of the U of A in order to save the Flandrau and voice our opposition to its closure. As a community, we need to respond, and literally overwhelm the U of A’s management with our letters, emails, and phone calls.

    If Tucson really is the “Astronomy capitol of the US”, then not having a public planetarium is simply preposterous. How can we allow this wonderful facility to be taken away from our community?

  3. Sam Storch

    The closing of a fine public planetarium (particularly one in the “Astronomy Capital of the United States”) for financial reasons is scandalous, an embarrassment, and a shameful decision by the university. Would that the money being spent on other contemporary university priorities (sports, luxury dorms to recruit students, to name two) be redirected to an institution that projects intellectual concerns such as astronomy! Yes, intellectual, unapologetically, instead of the usual mindless mass entertainment or the short-term money gained through educational “consumerism.” Let’s publicly celebrate science for a change!

    As we observe the International Year of Astronomy, how do we collectively dare allow these decisions to continue with no well-directed public protestation taking place?

    Have we all forgotten that there are some worthy public institutions (planetariums, schools, museums, and libraries, for instance) that absolutely must be kept operating even if they consistently “run in the red” financially?

    Don’t we value any of the “greater things” in our society any more? Since when do we stop bringing the universe to the people because the effort is losing money?

    Where are those who have the “larger vision?”

    Sadly, the decision may be already “a done deal.” If that is so, I implore you to consider these same imperatives and work in your own community- there are hundreds and hundreds of planetariums in educational settings at every level, and nearly all are constantly tossing in a tempest of financial storms and school system politics.

    Let’s “turn up the heat,” so to speak. May this sad closing be the last of its kind.

  4. Piotr

    In my country (Poland) everything seems to be more important than science too. For example in my town there isn’t any money for IYA 2009 celebration but they organize e.g many sport entertainment every month.

  5. Craig Levin

    I think we might want to write our representative and senators, and if you’re in AZ, you should write your state-level people, too. UA is a member of the USRA, a large consortium of colleges and universities that acts as a contractor with the federal government to run observatories-among other things. NASA projects now have to have a certain amount of money set aside for public outreach activities. My points being:

    1) Why should ground-based astronomy be different from space-based astronomy in this regard?

    2) A planetarium is one of the best ways to conduct public outreach.

    3) When the Flandrau goes away, that leaves a lot of the Southwest without significant resources for science education and outreach. Since that region is seriously underserved for science education and outreach as things are now, it would be a serious detriment to the level of education in the region, and thus to the country in general.

    As another note, though not necessarily worth mentioning to your congressional delegation, let’s look at the year when the Alder in Chicago opened its doors-1931. Hardly America’s most prosperous year.

  6. Steve - Houston

    Growth comes from a seed. If the land is barren and dry, sustaining life is difficult. If the seed is not planted and nurished, how do you expect it to take root. It is our responsibility to perpetuate growth in those that follow us. Our forefathers plowed the rough ground for us. We have exploited the fertile ground that we were blessed with, and left it barren. It is our time to plow and plant; not give up because we are spoiled brats. If we do not care about the future, what hope have we? Total failure is always just a generation away. No skipping allowed. Let’s revive ourselves. Challenge. Explore. Excite. Learn. Teach. Learn some more. Begin.
    If we give up, it stops. Remember momentum? It is easier and more efficient to keep it going than to let it come to a rest. It takes less energy to maintain than it took to start. Our turn to take the baton and finish our part of the course. Our turn to plant and nurture the new crop. Our heros struggled not just for our sake, but for all who follow. They did not look for excuses to get out of it. They chose to do their part. That’s all it took to be a hero. Let’s do our part. Be a champ, not a chump.
    Where would you be if no one had cared to teach you? If no one had taken the time to explain? If no one was willing to give so that you could have? What will you do? The future is in our hands.

  7. Chris Killingsworth

    Wow, you guys wax so eloquent, I will just offer this.

    Too Bad Sen McCain didn’t put in his own earmark into the pork budget that passed today! Come on John, get with the plan.
    I’m not in the area and not familiar with the details, but I would certainly urge Arizona citizens to CALL their reps and senators, sometimes they actually do listen to directed appeals.

    Regards,

  8. Greg

    David,

    I remember you from my days at the U of A, and Flandrau in particular. I worked there and at the Steward Observatory as a student, doing public evening presentations at Steward with the 21 inch reflector, and running Flandrau’s 16-inch. I also ran the programs in the planetarium theater, and it launched me on a career in planetariums.

    Although I am no longer in the field, I still love astronomy, and will cherish memories from my days at Flandrau, including spending time with you, meeting Bart Bok, and watching the MMT take shape in the Flandrau basement! Happier days, to be sure.

  9. Warren Odom

    As an U of A alumnus, I don’t know why I haven’t seen then mentioned in any alumni Emails! This is the first I’ve heard of it. I was a student on campus then, watched it being built, and attended the first public show. I often remember that presentation fondly, especially when I replay some of the great music they included in it. It was a great mix of astronomical and terrestrial drama alike. Then when I graduated I made sure my visiting family saw a show too. (My granddad’s stomach did a few flipflops when we flew into the Grand Canyon!)

    It’s hard to fathom this closing, in what could almost be termed the “capital of U.S. astronomy.” I hope the closing is only temporary, until economic conditions improve. (To Fred: no, it may not technically be the worst economy since the 1930s YET, in terms of unemployment percentage, etc., but it’s headed that way. I watch these things closely, and the speed and sharpness of the downturn and job loss is breathtaking. The worldwide repercussions will last for years.)

  10. Warren Odom

    Oh, say it ain’t so!

    As an U of A alumnus, I don’t know why I haven’t seen then mentioned in any alumni Emails! This is the first I’ve heard of it. I was a student on campus back then, watched it being built, and attended the first public show. I often remember that presentation fondly, especially when I replay some of the great music they included in it. It was a great mix of astronomical and terrestrial drama alike. Then when I graduated I made sure my visiting family saw a show too. (My granddad’s stomach did a few flipflops as the camera flew into the Grand Canyon!)

    It’s hard to fathom this closing, in what could almost be termed the “capital of U.S. astronomy.” I hope the closing is only temporary, until economic conditions improve. (To Fred: no, it may not technically be the worst economy since the 1930s YET, in terms of unemployment percentage, etc., but it’s headed that way. I watch these things closely, and the speed and sharpness of the downturn and job loss is breathtaking. The worldwide repercussions will last for years.)

    And was there no funding drive? As an alumnus, I would expect to have received a request for a donation at some point — but heard nothing.

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