Columbia Basin College's new planetarium will be the school's "what if" tool.
"If a kid says he wonders what it looks like to stand on Mars and look back at Earth, you can do it," said Mike Durst, director of CBC's Moore Observatory.
The same will go for if a student wants to stand in the rings of Saturn or the inside a human cell.
About two dozen people congregated in a parking lot on the eastern edge of the college's Pasco campus Thursday morning as school officials, donors and others ceremonially broke ground on the $1.2 million facility.
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The planetarium, expected to open in October, will augment CBC's astronomy program and provide another resource to its students.However, many spoke of the power of a planetarium to inspire young children in the sciences and curiosity in general.
"I want busloads of kids over here. I want it open on Saturdays so families can visit," said CBC President Rich Cummins.
Cummins said a planetarium was one of the items he put on his to-do list when he applied for his position in 2008. Then the recession hit and the economy slumped.
"It looked increasingly like it was going on my 'to-don't' list," he said.
But proponents, including Durst, continued to push for the project. Bechtel National provided $100,000 toward the project, and restricted state capital money will help pay for some of the work. Cummins approached the CBC Foundation about supporting it as well.
"We couldn't find a better activity to get behind and support," said foundation chairman Tom Harper.
The school will renovate Building D into the planetarium, a decision Cummins said will cost half as much as building a new structure. After the addition of the planetarium theater with its30-foot dome, the building will be a total of 2,700 square feet and have three classrooms.
The building will be connected with the current Moore Observatory and through a network with the not-yet-operational Pacific Northwest Regional Observatory in the Horse Heaven Hills. A multimedia system will allow staff to project images of the night sky and other images in an all-surrounding atmosphere.
Cummins said CBC already is developing a plan with Heritage University to offer a four-year astronomy degree once the planetarium and observatories are connected.
He and others spoke about the importance of the facility to the community, which has a highly scientifically literate population but also one where there are many students who come from families who never have attended college.
Ken Swanson, executive director of the Alliance for the Advancement of Science Through Astronomy, or AASTA, and also is working on the regional observatory, said he has been telling his 8-year-old daughter about the planetarium for weeks. He said she can't wait to visit and constantly asks about it.
"This is something I wish I had access to as a little kid," he said.
-- Ty Beaver: 582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org