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Posted on Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 5:58 a.m.

Pioneer's Argus Planetarium needs donor for $80,000 in critical upgrades

By Janet Miller


Argus Planetarium Director Ron Robinson says the planetarium needs $80,000 in upgrades to continue to function. It was the first high school planetarium in the nation when it was built in 1956.

Janet Miller | For

Unless $80,000 can be raised to upgrade technology, the lights at the Argus Planetarium housed inside Ann Arbor's Pioneer High School could go dim.

The planetarium, which became the nation’s first high school planetarium when it was built in 1956, operates on borrowed time, said Pioneer teacher and planetarium director Ron Robinson.

But instead of looking internally for funding - the district is staring at $14 million in budget cuts for next school year - the school district is looking for a donor or group of donors to underwrite the project, said Chris Barry, the district’s new grants coordinator. Naming rights could be part of the bargain, she said, although the Argus name would not be entirely lost.

While the district invited a group of about 25 potential donors to a planetarium show earlier this fall, no one has stepped forward with a donation, Robinson said. The Argus Camera Company - the Ann Arbor-based maker of the top-selling Argus cameras - funded construction of the planetarium 55 years ago. While Argus Camera is long-gone from Ann Arbor, there are Argus camera collector groups, and some of those members were invited to the show, Robinson said.

The planetarium’s original Spitz A-1 projector lasted 45 years and was finally retired in 2002 after a man in Egypt who made the bulbs died and the bulb stockpile depleted. He was the sole source for the bulbs. Some $200,000 from a larger school bond issue was used to upgrade the planetarium with a digital projector, a new 24-foot dome and seating and a new computerized data, audio and video system that ran the show. And it improved what was offered, he said. “We no longer show just the stars.”

But 10 years later, that system, like most computers, needs to be replaced, Robinson said.

The planetarium needs computer software and hardware upgrades to keep operating, Robinson said. The system has started to fail, he said.


Argus Camera Company funded construction of the Argus Planetarium 55 years ago.

Janet Miller | For

“Things can get quirky where we have issues with the audio kicking on and off.” For the first time, schools outside the Ann Arbor School District, who would pay a fee, can no longer book the planetarium. Robinson said he spends four to six hours a week working on the system to keep it running, adding that he didn’t expect the system to last past the end of the school year.

“And that’s the best I expect,” he said. “It could (end) tomorrow.”

The system runs through its four hard drives about every six months, Robinson said. Those hard drives are no longer made and can no longer be replaced. That could mean the Argus Planetarium could lose its place in history as the oldest continually operating planetarium at any school or college in the western hemisphere, Robinson said.

And even if $80,000 is raised, that probably won’t be the end of it, Robinson said. The technology likely will need to be updated every decade.

While district officials supports the planetarium, Robinson said he’s been told to find outside funding. “The science budget has been cut pretty deep this year,” he said. More is to come.

All of the district’s third- and sixth-graders attend a planetarium show, along with 10th-grade earth and physical science students. When it was operating at full capacity, between 10,000 and 15,000 students saw a show each year, Robinson said.

“I would hate to see something like this go. This is so special. It’s something no other high school in the world can talk about. We have the bragging rights of being first.”



Wed, Dec 7, 2011 : 2:39 a.m.

I went to Pioneer and graduated in 2005, I don't know if anything has changed since then, but I went inside this thing one time and that was at the lock-in after graduation. If they get an $80,000 donation I would recommend using it to put heat in some of the portable classrooms, and maybe doors on the stalls in the men's restrooms. It also probably wouldn't hurt to maybe invest in a far off area for the biology classes to do their pregnant cat dissections so the entire B hall doesn't smell like embalming fluid.

Dog Guy

Sat, Dec 3, 2011 : 8:05 p.m.

As an overpaid and underworked schoolteacher I have money to spare, but I haven't forgotten that school shutting down its range and rifle team. The school's priorities are still perverse.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 7:26 p.m.

dotdash and 63 townie - I'm in too! They need a web site and start soliciting donations! This is too important historically, locally, and nationally, to let the planetarium fall by the wayside.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 6:19 p.m.

I went to school K-12 in A2. We went to the planetarium in 3rd grade. I went to pioneer and went to the planetarium exactly once. ONCE. and for a Latin class no less that had a lesson about mythology (constellations) my point is the planetarium is hardly used. I wish it were used more and available on a regular basis for students to sign up for a visit to it even if it wasn't incorporated into a regular class.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 9:11 p.m.

It was twice for me. I enjoyed it both times. My feeling is that it was a low priority curriculum wise.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 5:50 p.m.

The Ann Arbor Public Schools adds additional administrative staff at Balas, all making big pay at over $100,000 per year, without advertising the positions or making public announcements, and tells school staff to "find your own funding" for a tremendously worthwhile facility that is allowed to degrade and operates on borrowed time. Perhaps it's time to do the right thing, and come up with the cash to keep our District's beautiful planetarium up and running properly.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 3:32 p.m.

i am comfortable that we have a school board which places value on locker rooms and raises over the development of intellectual curiosity. if you are uncomfortable maybe it's time to think about how you generally vote in this town.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 3:32 p.m.

I'm with you, 63Townie. Hey, maybe we can make a donation from posters! I wonder how much we can get. We'll need someone's teenage kid to set up a website called and link to Facebook and here.


Sat, Dec 3, 2011 : 1:25 a.m.

Think if everyone chipped in a bit we all might come up with the money? I really think so since the board won't hear of it.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 3:27 p.m.

Somewhere,somehow they'll find the money.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 3:23 p.m.

As a 1981 graduate of Pioneer, I'll chip in. Where do I sign up and who's with me?


Sat, Dec 3, 2011 : 1:24 a.m.

We just had a 30 year reunion. Think some of use grads from around then might want to do a fund raiser?


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 3:19 p.m.

Time to start squeezing the community about all those bonds and what ever that can be used to rebuild this planetarium. Kind of sucks that AAPS thinks it needs something else then something that can send another astronaut from Pioneer into space I may be thinking of a fund raiser to save this piece of history because no else will. But as I think about it? I can't remember ever being in that part of the building. Interesting.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 3:29 p.m.

We're all well aware that cuts to the arts and sciences tend to come before's a shame really.

Homeland Conspiracy

Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 2:54 p.m.

You might want to ask...Domino's Pizza CEO J. Patrick Doyle was one of the top 10 "most buzzed about" CEOs of 2011 for some $$$

Ron Granger

Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 2:50 p.m.

Take some money out of the *after school* sports budget.

Ron Granger

Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 2:41 p.m.

What did they do with the old projector, the one that lasted 45 years and just needed bulbs? I'd be very surprised if it couldn't be retrofitted with LED lights. They should look *very* seriously at that. They could augment the traditional with digital - if they have the funding for the digital.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 1:50 p.m.

I can remember going to it when I was at Eberwhite and Slauson. It was pretty cool as a kid to experience something like that. Heck I even had Mr. Robinson for earth science during the 98-99 year. Hope they can raise the money to keep it going. Does the school district need to charge a *fee for the elementary and middle school sudents whiel going there on field trips?

Lac Court Orilles

Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 1:49 p.m.

If it weren't for votes to cut the school aid fund from Representative Rick Olson and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville who represent The Ann Arbor Public Schools there would be money to repair the Argus Planetarium. Ask these two individuals for the money; they work for YOU! They are the two guilty ones primarily responsible for the lack of money.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 3:41 p.m.

Lac Court Orilles - The cuts came, but to spend over $12 million from all tax sources on Varsity Athletics and Zero on the Planetarium was the choose of the school board. More money from the state would have only meant more money for Varsity Athletics, and no more money for teachers or the planetarium. Varsity Sports 2 - Academics 0. Highlights at 11


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 3:16 p.m.

Disagree again. Wasn't there a bond issue several years ago as to what to do with the money so they rebuilt their football stadium? So, if they have bond money to rebuild that stadium then whey do they not have the money to rebuild the planetarium. Hate to say it but Ann Arbor school members have their priorities backwards.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 1:36 p.m.

For a town that claims to pride itself on education we sure don't put our money where our mouth is. Is AAPS an academic jewel of the state and the country or simply a sports facility that uses the school as it's feeder program? Lots of the sports funding comes from the huge pay to play fees that parents are willing to pay and all the booster club activities. So lets not just point our finger at poor budgeting decision (though they certainly share in the blame). Lets also point at ourselves as AAPS parents and Ann Arbor citizens. If we value education at least as much as sports then there should be thriving academic booster clubs.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 3:39 p.m.

I blame poor budgeting decisions. This year between the grounds keeping (general fund), Athletic fund transfer (general fund), facilities construction (bond fund/sinking fund), facilities upgrades (bond fund/sinking fund) AAPS spent at least $12 million on Varsity Athletics of tax money. This does not include game admissions, booster club money, donations, pay for play, insurance fees or other non-tax funds. So yes, the decision was to support athletics at the cost of doing things like fixing the Argus Planetarium. Sports 2 - Academics 0. Highlights at 11.

Jim Mulchay

Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 2:35 p.m.

Where is the vibrant, active local (private)companies that might step up? - Borders is gone; Pfizer is gone; Dominos seems to have stepped back - that seems to leave Zingermans and Edwards Brothers - UM and the Hospitals are not likely to adopt (and pay for) a local public school project; All the new Hi-tech startups - maybe? The AA Community Foundation was mentioned earlier - along the same lines how about AAPS or Pioneer alumni groups? Maybe the class of 1962 would like to make it a 50-year anniversary project?


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 1:32 p.m.

Charge $3 to go on the field trip. If 15,000 kids go each year it will be paid off in 2 years and will generate income to pay for updates each decade.


Sat, Dec 3, 2011 : 1:28 a.m.

Excellent idea. Most children do have to pay to get into certain field trips. Why not this?


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 6:20 p.m.

actually that is not a bad idea, thousands of kids go on field trips to the Hands On Meusem and students pay (a reduced) fee to get in with a class.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 12:53 p.m.

Have to agree that there always seems to be funds for other projects, i.e. locker rooms, installing key pads at all of the schools and furnishing plastic cards to use -- provide a supeintendent with a $65K raise -- there is most of the funding right there. The planetarium is awesome and should be kept.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 12:51 p.m.

With 10,000-15,000 students using it each year, it seems essential to keep it open. In a town that values education and historic preservation, this is a no brainer. Hopefully a generous business or groups of businesses will step forward now that the word is out. I'm happy to patronize businesses that support AAPS, and I'm certain that there are thousands of AAPS families that feel the same.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 5:30 p.m.

@YpsiLivin Trying to figure out how your horse got in this race?


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 4:44 p.m.

I'm not sure about your logic, here. The Silverdome COULD seat 80,000, but that never meant that 80,000 WOULD go there.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 1:58 p.m.

Fine, with 10,000-15,00 ABLE to use it when it is upgraded, it is a no brainer.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 1:26 p.m.

You misread what was in the article. The text says: "All of the district's third- and sixth-graders attend a planetarium show, along with 10th-grade earth and physical science students. When it was operating at full capacity, between 10,000 and 15,000 students saw a show each year, Robinson said." The planetarium is not operating at full capacity now. Only the AAPS third, sixth and tenth grade students use it - probably no more than about 4,000 students per year.

Jim Mulchay

Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 12:43 p.m.

Several Questions - a) What is the board of education's opinion of the value of the planetarium? Based on the article it seems like the have no problem operating it - just not upgrading it; b) What is the annual operating cost (currently and "after" the desired upgrade) - I'd think this figure would include staffing (people) costs? c) What alternatives are available (U-M, EMU, WCC, Concordia) - if any? - I'd assume cost and transportation would make any alternatives too expensive . How many AAPS students went to the planetarium in the 2010-2011 school year? d) Could this be paid for from bond monies? If so - and the school board is in favor - is there still $80,000 available in the existing bonds? e) I thought there was an upcoming "technology bond" request coming - if there is, would (or could) this be covered under that bond? f) How long can the existing facility operate? Is there time to raise money or is the "life" of the planetarium measured in months, not years? If the $80,000 is found, how long before an additional upgrade is needed? g) I'd agree that a school district having a planetarium is special, but is it affordable for the AAPS? Overall I'd have thought that $80,000 ought to have been available in bond monies already approved by the voters for this voters - was this brought up in any budget / bond discussions in prior years?


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 12:35 p.m.

$ 6 million was available to fix a locker room and a weight room for varsity sports, but not $80,000 for a planetarium. Yes, sir the district has their head on straight and the priorities in the right place! All three of these projects come from the same budget line and use the same kind of millage. As usual in AAPS Sports 2 - Academics 0. Highlights at 11.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 12:30 p.m.

Great that there is a planetarium at Pioneer. Great that all the schools use it. Given how much went into the original cost, it's probably worth it to put in the $80,000 but one can see the reluctance of the school to divert money from instruction to do so. This sounds like a perfect project for the AA Educational Foundation.

Karen Hart

Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 11:53 a.m.

While there's nothing quite like a planetarium to learn about the stars, It's certainly not essential to the high school. There are at least two other planetariums in town. If it saves money to close it and reallocate the space, it's time.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 7:23 p.m.

If you have ever seen where the planetarium is located in Pioneer you would know that there is really no other use for the space. My guess is that it would cost a couple 100K to make the room usable for anything else.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 5:28 p.m.

"If it saves money to close it and reallocate the space, it's time." Do you think you could "reallocate" the space for $80.000. I doubt it! Have to agree with others here. Money to spend on others niceties at the schools like synthetic turf but nothing for a unique experience. BTW I played football for Pioneer but that does not mean I don't see value in spending money on things other than athletics.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 5 p.m.

jns131, If you're referring to Jack Lousma, he graduated in 1954, two years before the planetarium was built. Hate to say it, but the planetarium had no impact on Jack Lousma's career choice. The decision to keep the planetarium (or not) needs to be based on the cost of keeping the facility open and properly maintained, the number of students who use it, the availability of alternatives, and whether or not the facility can generate sufficient independent income to support its own operations.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 3:13 p.m.

Disagree. If a student wants to learn about astronomy what better place to have it, then at the school they are in. Most children cannot afford the drive, the money or what ever to get to a planetarium to learn what is up there. Hate to say it, but Pioneer did send an astronaut into space. So, it goes without saying, save the planetarium.