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Friends of Arlington's

David M. Brown Planetarium

50 Years & Counting at the Arlington, VA Planetarium

By Teresa Wilson & Kathi Overton

Less than three months after Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind, the Arlington Planetarium opened its doors under the direction of Mr. Steven SmithThe planetarium was one component of Dr. Phoebe Hall Knipling’s vision to help foster an interest in the sciences in Arlington students.

Dr. Knipling was the Science Supervisor of Arlington Public Schools from 1953 to 1975, and the first person to hold such a position in Virginia. She consulted with others who had experience creating a planetarium program, to ensure that Arlington would minimize startup issues. Knipling was also adamant that the school system spend the money to hire a planetarium director who already had experience in the field, so that the program could maximize its potential right away. Her attention to detail during building inspections before opening day helped avoid possible problems with light leakage, including covering a clear glass window in the door between the projection chamber and the outside. 

As director of the facility, Smith collaborated with school principals and teachers from each grade level to develop a suitable curriculum, and trained lecturers on using the planetarium instruments. He ensured that the planetarium had the proper materials to repair equipment on-site, so that the students’ experience would not bear the brunt of a malfunction. His original budget proposal, which included equipment for presentations, maintenance and repair costs, as well as curriculum development, came to a total of $5,720.

The first trial run for the planetarium took place on Monday, 13 October 1969, and student programs began later that week. The facility was open from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. for classes from local schools, and for adult education classes after 5:00 p.m. Attendance the first year exceeded 13,000 visitors. The following year, new student programs helped increase attendance. At this time, free admission was only granted to students in the public school system. Private and parochial schools could only use the planetarium on specific days of the year and were charged $30 per visit. In 1971, a letter to the County Board protesting this policy led to a major overhaul of the system, and a Community Activities section of the School Board budget was created. In 1972, the planetarium was moved from the jurisdiction of the Science Supervisor and placed under the Director of School and Community Activities.

As the Apollo program dwindled in the early 1970’s, so too did the news coverage that kept space in the forefront of people’s minds. As a result, planetarium attendance declined. In 1973, Smith instituted a monthly “Astroletter” to keep teachers informed of celestial events. He also began biannual visits to schools to personally schedule planetarium field trips with the teachers. In the mid 1970s, Smith instituted regularly scheduled shows for the public, with an admission fee of $1. Response to these programs was enthusiastic. The first program, “The Loneliness Factor,” was seen by over 2,000 people.

Public programs varied in content and genre, appealing to people from a variety of backgrounds. In the summer of 1977, the planetarium featured a 35-minute show, titled “Poetry in the Stars,” featuring 11 poems from authors such as Blake, Browning, Dickenson, Longfellow, and Shelly, and was “accompanied by appropriate music and special planetarium visual effects,” according to an article in the Arlington News. The paper also wrote the “Planetarium may be the best show in town” in 1978 while reporting on the show “The Universe Game.” Smith described it as “a cosmic Laugh-in… In a rollicking, often side-splitting way, the planetarium uses its dome and projectors and its subject matter (space) to entertain—and teach you something in the process.” 

Another program about the Space Shuttle, which Smith wrote and produced himself, was selected by NASA for national distribution, and earned the planetarium the Southeastern Planetarium Association’s 1978 Special Achievement Award.

In the following years, planetarium staff were asked to consult on other programs for national and international distribution. The planetarium’s public programs continued to be featured regularly in the local Arlington newspapers throughout the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s. In 1989, Smith invited Geoff Chester, a local amateur astronomer, to conduct monthly sky parties, which gave the audience a chance to view the actual night sky outside the planetarium. As late as 1995, two different astronomy classes were offered at the planetarium through the county’s Adult Education program.

Steven Smith retired from his position as director in 1999, after 30 years on the job. He was replaced by Jonathan Harmon, who had switched careers from broadcasting to education a few years prior. Harmon’s technical background, together with his education experience, helped make him a perfect fit for director of the planetarium.

In 2008, the planetarium was renamed in memory of Captain David M. Brown. Captain Brown was an Arlington native and an APS graduate, having attended McKinley elementary, Swanson junior high, and Yorktown high school. He became a United States Navy fighter pilot, a flight surgeon, and eventually a NASA astronaut, serving as a mission specialist on shuttle mission STS-107. Brown died, along with the rest of the crew, on 1 February 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost during reentry.

By 2010, the planetarium had about 22,000 visitors per year, but was in dire need of updated equipment. At the time, the system still used 35mm slides in 16 separate slide projectors, along with video coming from DVDs and laser disc players, all connected to an aging DOS computer system. A 2009 study was commissioned by APS and conducted through George Mason University to evaluate the facility as an educational tool. The report concluded that the planetarium was “a unique vibrant asset of not only the Arlington Public School system, but the people of the County of Arlington” and recommended modernizing the planetarium equipment to enhance its instructional capabilities. However, when the FY2011 budget was presented in early 2010, Dr. Patrick Murphy, APS Superintendent, announced that the planetarium would be permanently closed due to budgetary restrictions. 

The local community came together in protest, delivering speeches at APS School Board meetings and creating an online petition, website, and social media presence that attracted thousands of enthusiastic supporters. By May 2010, the group formed a non-profit organization, Friends of Arlington’s David M. Brown Planetarium, with the intention of raising money to keep the planetarium open. Dr. Alice Monet, an Arlington native and retired Naval Observatory astronomer, led the group. Superintendent Murphy challenged the organization to come up with $402,800 to be raised by 30 June 2011 in order to cover the cost of a new digital projector, replacement seating, new console and computer system, updated lighting, and a new dome surface for the facility.

After 15 months of intensive fundraising, which included benefit concerts, a seat dedication fundraiser, local business support, special events and presentations at the planetarium, and the generous donations of over 3,500 people, the Friends of the Planetarium exceeded the $400,000 fundraising goal. APS agreed to keep the planetarium open, and consented to allocate any additional money required for the renovations. In September 2012, the planetarium reopened, featuring a new Spitz SciDome digital projection system, bringing the facility fully into the 21st century.  

After the reopening, the David M. Brown Planetarium was attended by approximately 17,000 students annually. It was also one of the most community accessible planetariums in the region, with public programs scheduled on most Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays during the school year. The Friends of the Planetarium organization continued to partner with the school system to provide enhanced experiences in the planetarium for students and the public. Special presentations included science lectures and demonstrations, as well as movie nights, trivia quizzes, concerts, star parties, and original full-dome programs. 

In November of 2019, the planetarium was temporarily shuttered due to a major renovation of the adjacent Education Center building. During construction, asbestos was discovered in parts of the planetarium. Unfortunately, the resulting asbestos abatement process required the removal of the planetarium’s interior murals.

There were several construction delays, exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, but the Education Center building renovation was finally completed and the building was reopened as the Washington-Liberty Annex at the beginning of the 2022 fall semester.

In early 2022 the school system announced a budget plan that would postpone hiring any planetarium staff, which would have delayed the opening of the planetarium for another year. However, after an energetic campaign by the Friends of the Planetarium, the school system revised the budget and hired Mary Clendenning, an experienced physics teacher, to run the facility. This enabled the planetarium to reopen in November of 2022, featuring updated computers and new Digistar 7 planetarium software. The equipment upgrade also included a higher resolution video projector and full internet connectivity for improved remote instruction capabilities.

The reopened planetarium provided instruction for more than 14,000 students in its abbreviated first year of operation, and the Friends of the Planetarium held public shows and events one weekend each month, presenting programming to more than 1000 local community members over the course of the year.

During the 2023-2024 academic year the school system added a second weekend per month of public programming, and restarted the monthly "Stars Tonight" program, which provides community members with an in-depth look at the skies over Arlington, as well as various atmospheric and celestial phenomena.

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Tax ID # 27-2760025

P. O. Box 7029,  Arlington, VA. 22207 


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