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Reaching for the Stars

Fund-raiser is set for Nov. 14 to help defray costs of renovations, additions.

Stargazers, astronomers and baseball fans alike were dazzled by a full eclipse of the moon last Wednesday evening, a phenomenon that draws eyes upward for its rare beauty.

A Great Falls group is hoping to inspire more upturned eyes with the renovation of Observatory Park at Turner Farm, formerly the site of the Nike Missile Defense Mapping Agency.

“It took several years to have this land turned over from the government and then several more years of public hearings to turn this into a park,” said Charles Olin, developer of the Observatory Park project and former president of the Analemma Society, a group dedicated to the transformation of the old radar tower into an educational wonderland for local students and sky watchers alike.

The goal of the Analemma Society and Olin is to turn the land into a multifaceted park geared toward astronomy.

“We’re trying to restore the old building, which will cost around $45,000 for structural work and cleaning,” Olin said.

During the building’s days as a radar tower, a telescope was housed there, but it was taken out. “We have plans to put a telescope back in,” Olin said, “but the building doesn’t meet safety code for public use. It would take a $200,000 renovation to meet codes, including a new domed-roof observatory building.”

The society also hopes to install computers and software that would allow students to use the observatory in their classrooms via remote control to direct the 16-inch telescope that will initially be installed, Olin said.

“People will be able to come down at night and use the park and telescope itself as well,” he said. “We’re also hoping to have four separate rooms with telescopes in them that the public will have access to.”

THE COSTS FOR these renovations are staggering, Olin said, with the 16-inch telescope costing about $16,000 alone, not to mention the computer software, building work and other fees.

Olin and the Analemma Society are holding a fund-raiser on Sunday, Nov. 14, featuring wine and hors d’oeuvres and a performance by theatrical organist Lew Williams.

“He’s one of the best. He’s a fabulous musician,” said Jack Hardman, Analemma Society member. “He knows the theater organ as few others do.”

Hardman will be hosting the event “celebrating the progress on Observatory Park,” at which Olin will give a progress report on the park’s renovation.

“Charles has done an incredible job so far. It’s well under way for this type of project,” Hardman said. “Kids from local schools will be invited to come out and enjoy the park when it’s done.”

In the meantime, the Analemma Society gathers at Observatory Park on clear Friday evenings to set up their own personal telescopes to look at the heavens.

“Members of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club set up their telescopes for people to look through,” Olin said. “The best time to come out is the half hour before and half hour after sunset, to see the early stars and planets come out and see the telescopes.”

Astronomy, after all, is more that telescopes, he said.

“WE HOPE TO have short- and long-wave radiation meters, sundials and pre-telescopic instruments that kids would enjoy playing with” at the park, Olin said.

“The night sky can’t be seen in a classroom. You have to experience it,” he said.

Kevin Fay, Dranesville District Park Authority representative, said the project is “ambitious” and could do very well if partnerships within the community are formed.

“I thing this can be a real exciting addition to the Park Authority properties,” Fay said. “Assuming the bond issue passes (which would contribute funding to the Park Authority), I’ll be looking forward to starting some of the initial work and getting some of the preliminary things up and running.”

This is an important project for the community, he said, and the ambition of the Analemma Society’s members will help carry them through the work ahead.

“They will have a great deal of work to do with fund-raising, but it’s a very exciting project,” he said.