SMC's Drescher Planetarium looking to fill black hole

The passing of John Hodge, a former director of the John Drescher Planetarium in 2005, left the Santa Monica College (SMC) Astronomy Department short not only a director, but also a qualified technician. Hodge ran the uniquely domed planetarium, but now the task falls on faculty and outside contributors.

"When John Hodge passed, we applied for a replacement but were denied due to budget cuts, cutting costs, and administration on campus," said Vikki Drake, chair of the Earth Sciences. "They made the decision to eliminate the position and [since then] bits and pieces were picked up by other people."

This had the remaining professors scrambling to understand the inner workings of the planetarium.

Simon Balm, SMC professor of astronomy and chemistry, and Jim Mahon, a former Rocketdyne employee, picked up where Hodge had left off but many of Hodge's tasks, including the planetarium website, have been neglected.

The Drescher Planetarium was rebuilt five years ago and uses an upgraded Evans and Sutherland Digistar II projection system to show audiences where stars would be on the night sky.

The planetarium offers Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday morning shows at the price of four dollars per person, Friday evening shows for five dollars, and Friday double features for nine dollars. For every show, children's tickets cost a dollar less.

"The money goes into the event's program," said Drake, clarifying how the shows proceeds are used. "Any money that comes in from the school shows [during the week] and the Friday night show goes into that pot."

According to Drake, there is an allocation of money that has been set aside to handle emergencies like the one this summer, when the planetarium stopped working altogether.

"$80,000 was set aside to do some serious repairs to the planetarium," said Drake. "It came to a very ugly head last year when the dome started collapsing."

On top of that, a complete overhaul of the Digistar II projector was necessary.

"Spare parts are getting increasingly difficult to obtain for a system that has been out of production for almost a decade," said Mahon. "Going through it and replacing the main projection tube were crucial steps to maximize lifetime of the system."

Senior administrators were not available for comment.

In Hodge's absence, Mahon has recently been contracted to provide more stability to the planetarium and possible problems.

Why assistants have not been provided for the Earth Sciences department remains a subject of confusion.

"In chemistry, I have lab technicians helping us with out labs," said Balm who teaches astronomy and chemistry classes at SMC. "What we've been trying to get for years is a lab technician to try and help us set up our labs [for astronomy]."

The complexity of the Digistar II projector limits the pool of professors who are able to take over the role of planetarium technician.

"I can't get things to work the way they are supposed to," said William Selby, a physical geography professor at SMC. "Once I couldn't even get to the point that I was confident to get my class in. Another time, I got the class in there and it shut down while I was using it. That never happened when John [Hodge] was here."

Six years since his passing, the absence of Hodge has created a black hole in the astronomy department that still has yet to be filled.

"The college has kept the planetarium running but I just think that they could do more," said Balm. "But we can't do that unless we have someone who can work on it full-time."

Balm, who is a full time teacher at SMC, has limited time to run the planetarium but is willing to show others how to use it.

"It's a great community asset because people come every week to see these shows," said Balm. "And if you wanted to go to another planetarium, you would have to go to Griffith Park or El Camino in the South Bay."