State Del. Scott Surovell has fond memories of the planetarium at what, in his youth, was Fort Hunt High School.
“When I was in elementary school at Waynewood, I remember we took a field trip to Fort Hunt High School to go look at the planetarium,” said Surovell, D-44th. “I just remember it being pretty cool. When you’re in elementary school, you don’t get to do something like that very often, and back then there weren’t a lot of planetariums around.”
Now , the school has discontinued use of the planetarium in recent years due in part to budget cuts. According to the school district, Fairfax County schools have the greatest concentration of school district planetaria — nine — in the country, except for Dallas.
Beginning fall 2009, the Fairfax County Public Schools placed all planetaria on hiatus and ended funding for middle school field trips, although the other eight facilities continue to be used for high school instruction.
A few years ago, Surovell began wondering when his children would get to visit the planetarium and learned it was no longer in operation. He offered to work with the district to restore the planetarium and offered to help recruit corporate sponsors, if money was an issue, but now it’s been two years and nothing has come of it from the district, he said.
Fairfax County Public Schools spokesman John Torre said the planetariums at the other eight schools are used by geosystems and astronomy classes. The planetarium at Carl Sandburg is still operational, he stressed, but the employee who ran the planetarium has retired, and currently no one is trained for the position. Training is being offered this summer for teachers interested in learning how to use the planetarium, he said.
The district’s planetaria were built in the 1960s. The Carl Sandburg facility might have provided inspiration to Wendy Barrien Lawrence, a NASA astronaut who graduated from Fort Hunt High School in 1977.
Dan Storck, Fairfax County School Board member for the Mount Vernon District, said building the planetaria was a response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik and the space race. He bemoaned the fact that budget cuts have left the Carl Sandburg planetarium unused.
“We cut everything but the kitchen sink out of budget, and planetarium staffing was one of them,” Storck said.
Storck said the planetarium does not meet current code in terms of a fire suppression system and a secondary egress exit route. Both problems could be fixed, but the price tag would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.
Storck has initiated a conversation with the school district about bringing the planetarium up to code. “I can’t say at this point in time that there’s any plans to fix that, but it’s something I’m going to follow up on,” he said. “… My objective is to make sure we can occupy the room.”
Torre said the upcoming renovations to Carl Sandburg may include modifications to the dome and the air-conditioning system at a cost of $60,000, but a new egress would cost much more. He noted the planetarium equipment has been maintained yearly and is operational.
Surovell, on his part, wants action sooner rather than later.
“I’d like to try and help get the thing going,” he said. “Math and science is an area we’re falling down on in this county, and we need to do a better job. And there’s certainly a shortage of minority kids who are getting into math and science, and I think this is something that could be inspirational.”