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Turner Farm Reaches for Stars

Observatory Park could be national flagship

The Analemma Society of Great Falls is aiming for the stars with the 2004 Park Authority Bond Referendum and hoping that the bond money will enable the group to start developing Observatory Park at Turner Farm. An impressive group of scientists is advising the society on the park, which might emerge as a national flagship if it continues to be developed according to plan.

Dranesville District supervisor Joan DuBois has requested $1.7 million from the park bond for Observatory Park. Bringing Observatory Park into fruition will probably cost around $6 million, but if it is developed on the scale imagined, it will be a magnet park not just for the state but also for the country.

Spearheaded by Charles Olin, the Analemma Society has set down some lofty goals for the portion of Turner Farm known locally as “the Nike site,” where Observatory Park will be created. Plans include a museum, an educational center, an international sundial garden, a roll-top observatory and a planetarium, among other things.

Recognizing that park funding is tight, Charles Olin and his wife, Jacque, along with other society members, have looked for other avenues to generate the money needed for the project. “We’re starting to go outside of Dranesville, to get money from other districts so we don’t have to just go to Dranesville,” said Jacque Olin. Charles Olin added, “We’re going to serve other districts. Schools from all over are going to come here, so it makes sense.”

Kevin Fay, Dranesville District park supervisor, indicates that Observatory Park’s chances of getting funding from the bond appear good. “I definitely feel Turner Farm is up there in terms of projects we’re supporting. I expect that support to continue. How that will translate into dollars, however, is up in the air.”

Building the educational center is the key to launching the rest of the project because it opens up federal funding that is otherwise unavailable. Once that center is erected, other segments of the project can be built, and it is hoped that excitement generated from the public and the scientific community will drive funding efforts in the future.

THE NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION, for example, could give the society $3 million for staffing, but not until the educational building is open. In the interim, the Olins see a natural progression from volunteers, like those at the park on Friday evenings, to county staff, as the project becomes more tangible. “Development depends on the funding. We’re ready to go. We just don’t know when all the money is coming in,” said Charles Olin.

A recent fund-raiser by the Society raised nearly $8,000. The group, according to Jacque Olin, has raised close to $100,000 in-hand for various segments of the park. Aside from the money, the expertise donated by members of the Society’s Advisory Board and from interested parties has been impressive. Charles Olin estimates that the pro bono efforts given to make Observatory Park a reality are over $1 million.

The fact that some of the most noted astrophysicists and astronomers in the country are excited enough about the project to donate their talents underscores the importance of the science behind astronomy and the world culture that can be shared through the park. “We’re running the gamut on two things — the instruments used from the past to present day, and the instruments used in determining location and time” at the park, said Charles Olin. “This is a tremendous history for kids that is all centered on astronomy, which was the first science.

“This is a park for science through astronomy. We will have a museum dedicated to the history of determining position on earth through astronomy. Because of the nature of the site, we are respecting its history,” said Olin.

One aspect that will be highlighted at the museum is that the Nike site was actually where the Global Positioning System (GPS) was developed. After the end of the Cold War, the site changed hands and became a part of the Federal Mapping Agency. “The community knows it as the Nike site, but it’s the Federal Mapping Agency that no one knows about. This was the home base, the hub for that [GPS] equipment,” said Charles Olin.

The Analemma Society has already raised the funds for the roll-top observatory on the site. “It’s a fait accompli,” said Charles Olin. Repairing the existing observatory, one of the most recognizable landmarks of the site, will require about $200,000 and was the reason for the recent fund-raiser. The observatory won’t be open to the public, but Olin envisions it being remotely operated and viewable through the educational building.

JACQUE OLIN SAID, “That will teach children about the technology to operate telescopes.” Exciting and enriching children through astronomy is the ultimate goal of the park. “This is a framework to capture children’s imagination,” said Charles Olin. “The park will develop excitement as it becomes a fun, hands-on experience that can be shared by kids and their parents.”

Currently, the Analemma Society hosts stargazing every Friday evening at the park, when weather conditions permit. It’s one way the society has begun to engage the public in Observatory Park before it’s fully operational and a way for the society’s members to connect with people interested in learning about astronomy.

Great Falls has the darkest skies within a 30-mile radius of Washington, D.C. But Charles Olin says viewing opportunities have eroded over the years. “Light pollution is encroaching. I used to be able to look up and see the Milky Way every night and the clouds within it. Now, maybe I see it once a year,” said Olin.

Facilitating cultural understanding is also high on the list for Observatory Park. “Our Western science is possible because of the awakening the Islamic world brought to us by introducing astronomy to the West. We should pay homage to that contribution. There’s an awful lot of cultural exchange there. From the Greeks and the Romans we get a vision of the week. That’s a great cultural heritage up there just by knowing the sky,” said Charles Olin.

The sundial garden will be a conduit for this exchange, if Olin’s vision is realized. The sundials can be selected by their country of origin and based on historical models. Olin even imagines a scenario in which the embassy of that sundial’s country takes a direct role in its plot in the garden and selects the flowers or landscaping around the sundial to further reflect cultural heritage. “We will have the facility here for an exchange. This is as international as you can get,” said Jacque Olin.

There are even plans for a huge sundial on the site, which will enable drivers passing the park on Baron Cameron Road to tell the time as they go past the site.

Jacque Olin said, “Once the public begins to see it manifested, they will say, why wasn’t this here before?”