Lake Afton Public Observatory to close

The Lake Afton Observatory, photographed on Tuesday, will close next month. Attendance at the observatory is about 4,000 a year, roughly half what it was when it opened in 1981. (July 14, 2015)
The Lake Afton Observatory, photographed on Tuesday, will close next month. Attendance at the observatory is about 4,000 a year, roughly half what it was when it opened in 1981. (July 14, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

After 35 years of letting Kansans look to the stars, the Lake Afton Public Observatory will go dark forever next month.

Wichita State University officials who run the big telescope by the lake say they can no longer afford to take annual operating losses on the facility and can no longer compete with the Internet’s space imagery that eclipses the view from any earthbound telescope.

“It’s fallen on hard times for a number of reasons,” said Ron Matson, dean of the Fairmount College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at WSU. Closing the observatory is “a really, really difficult decision. This is not one I personally wanted to make and in fact one we’ve been resisting for a number of years.”

Attendance at the observatory is about 4,000 a year, roughly half what it was when it opened in 1981. In addition, business community sponsorships that helped pay for staffing and maintenance have dried up, and the university can’t cover those costs any longer, Matson said.

Matson said the observatory, which used to make money for the college and the university, now costs the university about $50,000 to $70,000 a year.

The final public program at Lake Afton, “Sizing up Saturn,” will be Aug. 22.

After that, Sedgwick County will find another use for the building, which is about 20 miles southwest of downtown Wichita in Lake Afton Park. The fate of the observatory’s 16-inch reflecting telescope, which the university owns, is still up in the air, Matson said.

The closure leaves a big gap for astronomy enthusiasts. The next closest facility with a robust schedule of public programs is the Powell Observatory in Louisburg, about 30 miles south of Overland Park.

Ironically, advances in space science have played a large role in the demise of the observatory.

While looking through a telescope has its charm, what you can see can’t compare with the images that can be downloaded in seconds from the Internet, said Greg Novacek, director of the Fairmount Center for Science and Mathematics Education and director of the Afton observatory.

“New Horizons (space probe) flew by Pluto this morning,” he said Tuesday. “If you want to see a picture, pull out your phone and you can look at a picture. You don’t need to come to someplace like the observatory to see a display that we’ve put up on the wall or something or some kind of other interactive exhibit that we have. That kind of stuff is instantaneous today.”

Still, the decision to close the observatory didn’t sit well with Goddard school district science teachers who were on campus for a seminar at WSU on Tuesday.

“That’s messed up. We already don’t have enough stuff around here to do with the kids,” said Tony McDonald, a science teacher from Explorer Elementary School, about six miles northeast of the observatory. “They can bring (the telescope) to my campus. I’ll repurpose it.”

Dan Funke, a longtime science teacher at Goddard’s Oak Street Elementary School, said he has taken numerous Boy Scout groups to the observatory, but that changes in state science education standards have de-emphasized astronomy in favor of engineering and biosciences.

“You don’t even get into space until sixth or seventh grade,” he said.

Matson said a decline in field trips has been one of the big drivers in the drop in attendance at the observatory.

Wichita schools require that all students on field trips be transported by bus for insurance reasons, unlike years past when parents could drive their children and a class trip was more of a family activity, he said.

Observational astronomy is by nature a night activity, making it difficult for teachers to schedule field trips to the observatory, he said.

The observatory was built in 1979 through a cooperative agreement between the university, the Wichita school district, the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County, which owns Lake Afton Park.

The county and city split the cost of the building, and the university and school district agreed to operate the facility for 10 years, making the financial commitments about even between the four agencies.

Novacek said that worked well until 1994, when the school district was hit with a series of budget crises and pulled out of the observatory project.

Since then, the Fairmount Center has handled operations and routine maintenance, with the county taking care of any big-ticket building needs, Novacek said.

Even though WSU will no longer operate an observatory, Novacek said the Fairmount Center plans to continue to make astronomy presentations at schools, along with other math and science outreach programs such as the Science Olympiad and the Kansas Junior Academy of Science.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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