Most people in the tri-state area are unfamiliar with the Smith Planetarium at the Walker County Science and Technology Center south of Chicka-mauga, Ga. on Pond Springs Road. The unfamiliarity won't last long. The new facility should win a quick, wide and enthusiastic following in the region it plans to serve.
The planetarium, named in honor of James A. Smith, member of the Walker County Board of Education and director of a previous planetarium that closed in 1998, is expected to serve about 25,000 students annually. Walker County students will be the first priority, but students in nearby Tennessee and Alabama also will be invited to use the planetarium. The county's willingness to share the facility with students from other districts is commendable.
NASA provided seed money for the $800,000 planetarium with a $50,000 grant in 2005. The remainder of construction funds came from Walker County Schools and from money from the county's special purpose local option sales tax. Those who might question the value of the tax should visit the new facility. Clearly, the funds generated by the tax approved by county voters has proved beneficial - in this instance, at least.
The 92-seat planetarium theater features a 40-foot domed ceiling and 113 panels on the planetarium screen. The school system also will be allowed to use the NASA-operated, automated telescope adjacent to the planetarium. That will allow planetarium operators to project live images of objects from the skies onto the planetarium's screen. Though not unique, the proximity of the planetarium and the telescope should provide an informative and a gratifying experience to planetarium visitors.
Teachers will be trained on how to use the planetarium during the upcoming summer. The facility will become operational and begin hosting students at the beginning of the 2011-12 school; year. The initial outreach will be to youngsters in grades two, four and six and to students who are taking high school astronomy classes. That's a proper beginning. Expansion of the curriculum should not be rushed.
Bill Cooke, a NASA employee and a graduate of Walker County's now-closed Rossville High School, attended the public unveiling of the planetarium last week. He certainly understands - both from professional and personal viewpoints - the value of the facility. "In an era when planetariums are going out of business, it's nice to see one going into business. We look forward to getting your [Walker County] students involved in this because it doesn't take a rocket scientist to do rocket science."
Such enthusiasm should prove contagious. Walker County students and those from other school districts fortunate enough to have access to the new planetarium have a wonderful and enlightening educational experience awaiting them.