Following months of hard work by community volunteers and more than $1 million in renovations, Arlington's David M. Brown Planetarium officially reopened Friday morning.
Outfitted with the latest in dome theater technology, the 56-seat planetarium will gradually incorporate educational programming for all grades throughout the year. Following this weekend's celebratory shows, regular public programming begins Oct. 12.
Gone are the tedious slide reels that had to be stitched together for productions. Digital technology is now in place, meaning stargazers are no longer bound to Earth — different programs can take viewers to different planets or satellites in order to look at the stars and other phenomena from different perspectives.
"It was cool before, but it's a heck of a lot cooler now," said Jonathan Harmon, planetarium director.
Built in the late 1960s as schools across the country rode the excitement of the space race, the Arlington planetarium — located at 1426 N. Quincy St., next to the Arlington Public Schools administration building — had become antiquated.
Two years ago, as the economic downturn forced school board members to weigh $30 million in cuts, the facility risked being shuttered — until an enthusiastic group of volunteers pleaded otherwise.
"I remember distinctly, they said, 'Give us an opportunity. Give us a window,' " Superintendent Pat Murphy said. "We said, "That's fair. Let's see what happens.' "
The Friends of Arlington's Planetarium formed and raised $404,000 for a new star machine, new seats and new lighting, schools spokeswoman Linda Erdos said. Thanks to their success, the school system committed an additional $600,000, she said.
The planetarium is named for the late NASA astronaut David M. Brown, an Arlington native who attended McKinley Elementary, Swanson Middle and Yorktown High schools. Brown died in February 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere.
"It's hard to remember when David wasn't smiling," said William Readdy, a retired U.S. Navy captain and former astronaut. "He was always, as aviators say, at full after-burner. Supersonic. In a way, he embodied NASA's mission."
Readdy added: "This planetarium near where he grew up and was educated is perhaps the most fitting memorial to him. Because now, for generations to come, he'll continue to inspire the next generation of young explorers."
Nearly 100 people attended Friday's ceremony, which included two songs from Barrett Elementary School's fifth grade chorus. The students finished by holding up images of stars, planets and a lone green alien.
"This is about the future," U.S. Rep. Jim Moran said. "Young people will look up and develop dreams and aspirations and fulfill their potential — as well as our potential as a nation."
Moran, Murphy and others, in their remarks and in brief interviews, made it a point to say the planetarium's reopening was a statement of community values and of Arlington's priorities.
"Arlington is defining itself as the way of the future for communities that are willing to invest in a world-class education system and globally competitive economy," Moran told Patch.
"This is the kind of investment that expresses that priority."
Alice Monet, president of the Friends of Arlington's Planetarium, announced Friday that her group has launched a David M. Brown scholarship program, and the first award will be given to a 2013 graduate who plans to major in a science field.
Dat Le, Arlington Public Schools science supervisor, said staff would work with teachers to develop programming that would be appropriate for different ages. Kindergarten programming is already in the works. First through fifth grades will follow, and then middle and high schools, he said.
"We want our students to imagine in a way that there are no limits and no boundaries," Le said. "For they are the next generation of astronauts and explorers."
The beginning of Richard Strauss' "Thus Spake Zarathustra" — invoking images of "2001: A Space Odyssey" — was played just before the ceremonial ribbon was cut. Instrumental themes to "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" could be heard in the background at the reception.
State Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, said he was excited the Arlington facility had opened. His mother used to be a guidance counselor at nearby Washington-Lee High School, and his son has been to the Einstein Planetarium at the National Air and Space Museum 34 times.
"It's gorgeous," Lopez said. "It's great what they've done. It's really extraordinary what they've been able to accomplish."