Story and photo by SIERRA RUSSELL
In 1975, the Aztec Press announced the opening of the Grace H. Flandrau Planetarium. Flandrau is located on the University of Arizona’s campus, yet the entire community is encouraged to visit.
In the 1975 issue, Richard Willey, assistant director of the planetarium, called Flandrau “the UA’s biggest attempt to interpret natural science and bring these programs to the public.”
Willey stressed that astronomy would not be the planetarium’s only focus. The geology department and various theatrical groups had expressed interest in hosting shows.
A primary objective was to demonstrate the links between science and art. “We will use theatrical techniques to enhance the drama of science,” Willey said.
For most of the 35 years that followed, Flandrau continued hosting shows and events to illustrate the ties that science has with art and culture.
Shows demonstrated the effects of light pollution and offered tips on locating constellations. Seasonal programs explained the history of holidays such as Christmas.
Even when Flandrau had to close its doors in 2009 for more than a year due to lack of funding, educational events continued. Such events would not have been possible without the volunteers who participated.
David Caiz, a volunteer telescope operator at Flandrau, said that he and other volunteers were asked if they were willing to help keep the observatory open during the tough economic times.
They were given a week to learn how to handle various equipment and computer programming.
“We jumped in and filled all the gaps, because the people who were paid to do those things weren’t getting paid anymore,” Caiz said.
Although tours were no longer offered, the volunteers set up solar telescopes during the day to offer students and passersby a chance to watch the sun’s activity.
On weekends, they would set up eight small telescopes on the lawn for nocturnal viewers. The volunteers would help stargazers locate constellations, while the large telescope in the observatory was open for people to gaze at objects such as planets and nebulae.
Caiz said the planetarium itself was never deconstructed, and the equipment was used for training purposes and for various star parties around town. The volunteers strived to keep the organization active in the community, but it was not easy.
“There were times when we were wondering, how are we actually going to pull this off, and for how long?” Caiz said.
When visitors asked why the planetarium was closed, Caiz explained the loss of funding.
“Then they’d often ask, ‘Well, are you getting paid?’” he said. “I’d tell them, ‘No, I’m here nine hours a day and I’m volunteering the entire time.’”
After hearing this, many patrons would ask where the donation box was located.
Caiz credits his love for astronomy as the main reason he dedicated so much time to Flandrau. He recalls his grandfather, an amateur astronomer, giving him a copy of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” for his 12th birthday.
“It was the same copy my mom had given to him 20 years before,” Caiz said with a smile.
With the support of the community and hard work from volunteers like Caiz, Flandrau recently reopened its doors. A variety of shows are currently offered, including laser light shows to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”
For details on shows and other activities, visit www.flandrau.org.