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.
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.