Why does John McCain hate planetariums?

11/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

[Note: this is a shortened version of what I wrote on my own blog. Feel free to drop by there for a longer rant.]

As an astronomer and educator, I had a slap-in-the-face moment last month when I read that John McCain called funding planetariums (in the biz we call them planetaria) "foolishness."

I wrote about it on my blog
, and tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. I wasn't really able to.

And then, in the second Presidential debate, he brought the issue up again, not once, but twice. He accused Obama of voting to give $3 million in earmarks for an "overhead projector" at a planetarium. Obama didn't retort. So I will.


What McCain said is plainly not true. Actually, there are two "untruths" in there. The first is that it's an "overhead projector". In fact, it's Adler Planetarium's venerable Zeiss Mark VI star projector, a beautiful machine that projects the stars and constellation on the dome, showing children what's in the night sky. The Zeiss is 40 years old, is showing its age, and cannot be fixed. They need a new system, and that's pricey.

The second untruth is about Obama voting to fund it: he didn't. Adler looked to politicians to help them raise money needed to replace the Zeiss. Obama put it in a budget proposal, but it never got funded, nor did Obama even get a chance to vote on it (it died in committee).

McCain must have known that what he was saying wasn't even close to being true. Yet he said it anyway, twice.

Planetaria do something noble and honorable: they teach kids. They teach kids science, which is something these children desperately need -- unless we want the next generation of Americans to believe humans walked alongside dinosaurs.

Funding planetaria is important, and something the government should be helping with if it's needed. Planetaria show us the beauty and grandeur of the Universe, and shouldn't be cynically relegated to being a political bludgeon used to score cheap points.

Zeiss Mark Vi image from Wikimedia, under the Creative Commons license. Photographer: Fritz Geller-Grimm