Tucson is the astronomy capital of the world, I am told by Astronomy Coordinator Michael Terenzoni during a recent visit to the Flandrau Science Center. “People come here from all over the world to do astronomy; to build observatories.”
Michael also informs me that people identify a planetarium as a source of valid information and I, of course, agree with him. “When we have an event in the skies, people come here to find out about it.”
So what happens when they arrive at Tucson’s wonderful Flandrau to find it closed?
Author Grace Flandrau could informally be described as the Science Center’s mom. A successful novelist, columnist, radio show host, and frequent visitor to Tucson, she died in 1971, and a year later the University of Arizona used a bequest from her estate “to fund a facility that would increase public understanding and appreciation of science.” The official website goes on to say:
Originally known as The Grace H. Flandrau Planetarium, the facility was part of the UA Department of Astronomy. Its location on campus, near the Astronomy Department, Optical Sciences Center, Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and historic Steward Observatory, reflects its continuing connections to the research community. The Planetarium was designed by Tucson architectural firm Blanton and Company and opened its door to the public in 1975.
Previous directors have included my friend, the late O. Richard Norton, a highly respected science writer and astronomer, and Richard R. Willey author of the short book The Tucson Meteorites: Their History from Frontier Arizona to the Smithsonian, which chronicles one of Tucson’s most enduring and mysterious legends. What the Flandrau website doesn’t mention is that the planetarium and mineral museum were almost forced to close their doors permanently earlier this year, and manage to maintain minimal opening hours due to the generosity of donors and supporters.
My initial plan was to conduct an interview with Alexis R. Faust, the current Excecutive Director of the Flandrau, then make a short visit to the superb U of A Mineral Museum, housed in the Flandrau’s basement. I thought I might get two interesting columns out of the one visit. I was late for my meeting and waited, briefly and comfortably in the conference room, for Alexis. I was graciously served good coffee, cold spring water and some snacks. My misguided belief that I would be satisfied by a short visit to these two astonishing resources was just that—misguided. I was there for half the day.
“The greatest economic value is the intelligence of people,” Alexis told me within the first couple of minutes. “Knowledge is the currency of the future.” And I was immediately and entirely captivated by her devotion to learning and her observations and predictions—both remarkable and numerous—about the future of education. “The mind is an amazing thing before we beat it to death with rote memorization, prejudice, and fear.”
To my surprise I did not hear any complaints or bitterness about budget cuts and the partial closing of the Science Center. Although the remaining staff have contracts that only run until December, the pervading view seems to be that when cuts need to be made, the money has to come from somewhere. But there is plenty of optimism among the few determined educators who walk through the quiet and nearly empty buildings.
“We’re not just sitting here,” Alexis elaborated. “We’re writing grants and raising funds so we can bridge this period of time. We are dedicated to finding it, and we are competing against the rest of the country for those funds, so we have to be as good as we can be.” With their their passion for education, their portable planetarium shows, a fine meteorite collection, and “the largest to-scale model of Mars anywhere in the world,” the Flandrau’s protectors are keeping it is as good as it can be, but the public gets to enjoy their best for only two days a week.
Alexis left me with this thought: “A lot of people still come by and knock on the door. They haven’t even heard about us closing. It’s not the university’s fault. I am incredibly grateful that we’re as alive as we are. Education is not getting funded the way it needs to be funded, and education is in the midst of a revolution. We need to keep up with it. That’s why institutions like this are so important.”
So, Alexis isn’t just hoping for better times ahead for the Flandrau, she intends to be part of a global change in not only how we teach, but how we learn. Tucson needs brilliant people like her, and Michael Terrenzoni, right here doing what they do best.
University of Arizona please take note: When times are tough, and we tighten our national belt, some will suffer, but Tucson’s venerable science center, with its international network of colleagues and collaborators, its long history of education and sharing the wonders of astronomy and the natural world, is too important, and too unique a resource to be one of those left to die in a wasteland of economic cutbacks.