With the start of Arlington’s school year looming, the school system’s planetarium finally again has a full-time staffer and is set to receive long-awaited equipment upgrades.
Mary Clendenning, whose 20 years of classroom-teaching experience ranges from physics to biology, has been tapped to serve as the new specialist at the David M. Brown Planetarium.
She is a known quantity to supporters of the facility, located adjacent to Washington-Liberty High School and the former Arlington Education Center on North Quincy Street, having presented weekend programming at the planetarium for three years.
“I am thrilled – so excited,” Clendenning said in a message to the Friends of the David M. Brown Planetarium, which over the years has rallied community support to keep the facility open despite seeming disinterest among some in school-system leadership.
The planetarium has been closed to accommodate work on the former Education Center building, which is being repurposed into an annex for Washington-Liberty. For a time, it was an open question whether the school system’s leadership would reopen the facility.
But it is set to return, along with a new Digistar 7 projection system, which is described as a major improvement over the existing digital projector and computer system.
“As soon as the system is in place and personnel are trained to use it, [the planetarium] will once again be ready to show students and the general public the wonders of the universe,” Friends of the David M. Brown Planetarium said in a statement.
The planetarium dates to the 1960s. In 2010, the school system’s then-superintendent, Patrick Murphy, proposed its closure in order to cut costs and because, he intimated, it was a relic of a bygone era.
The proposal proved a rookie mistake by a rookie superintendent who had not yet quite divined that Arlington’s school system ran slightly differently than in Fairfax County, where he previously had served as an administrator.
The community rallied, elected officials were put on the spot and Murphy gave in, but the School Board extracted a price – effectively requiring the Friends group to fund half the cost of an $800,000 renovation, completed in 2012, that saw replacement of the projector, lighting, seats and dome; asbestos removal; and improvements to carpeting, plumbing and mechanical systems.
In 2008, the School Board named the planetarium in honor of David Brown, a 1974 Yorktown High School graduate who went on to become a physician, U.S. Navy aviator and astronaut. Brown was among those killed in 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry.