What Kind Of 'Overhead Projector' Costs $3 Million?

John McCain has frequently criticized Barack Obama for a $3 million earmark for an "overhead projector" for a planetarium in Chicago. Paul Knappenberger, president of Chicago's Adler Planetarium, explains why this projector isn't just an everyday piece of classroom AV equipment.

The projector, which ultimately did not receive federal funding, would have been an update to the Adler Planetarium's 40-year old projector.

Guests:

Paul Knappenberfer, president of the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum

James Sweitzer, principal at Science Communications Consultants

After Debate, Chicago Planetarium In Spotlight

In Tuesday's presidential debate, John McCain said Barack Obama supported a earmark of $3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago. The money was, in fact, for an overhaul of the theater system at Chicago's Adler Planetarium.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Today, John McCain repeated a line of attack that he used earlier this week during the presidential debate. He pointed out an item he called an earmark that had been inserted into the congressional budget by Barack Obama. Here's how McCain explained it Tuesday in Nashville.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): He voted for nearly a billion dollars in pork barrel earmark projects including, by the way, $3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois.

BLOCK: Well, NPR's David Schaper went to that Planetarium to find out what kind of overhead projector costs $3 million.

DAVID SCHAPER: This certainly isn't what I think of when I hear overhead projector. I'm standing in the Sky Theater at Adler Planetarium in Chicago. And at the center of the room is a huge projection system. What it does is it projects the night sky onto the dome ceiling of the theater.

Mr. RICK PEEPLES(ph) (Projection Operator & Host, Adler Planetarium Sky Show): It's overhead in the sense that it projects overhead.

SCHAPER: Rick Peeples is the projection operator and host of the planetarium sky show.

Mr. PEOPLES: The image that comes to mind is those things you used to have in school, you know, with the lamp that shines up and you put transparencies on. No, it's not that kind of projector.

SCHAPER: Peeples says the actual projection apparatus looks kind of frightening.

Mr. PEEPLES: In my show, I always make a point of telling all the kids that it is not a mega blast or death ray, because it kind of looks like some sort of medieval doomsday machine. It's got these two big spheres, and it's up on a big pedestal. It's got all these things that look like a ray gun sticking out, but they're actually little projectors.

SCHAPER: Peeples says he has actually seen small children cry when they see it. What makes him sad is that this projection system is nearly 40 years old and starting to wear out.

Mr. PEEPLES: For instance, we want to show people where Jupiter is, and Jupiter doesn't work on this projector right now. The actual apparatus on the machine that shows us Jupiter is broken and we - they no longer make parts for this machine because it's so old.

SCHAPER: So, maybe we can call Senator Obama's $3 million earmark request to replace the projector his bridge to Jupiter. The request actually comes from a bipartisan group of six members of Illinois' congressional delegation. The total cost of the new theater projection system is $10 million, and the planetarium is raising private funds to cover the rest. Regardless, visitors to the Adler Planetarium today like Sophia Skees(ph) of Michigan, found the sky show worthwhile.

Ms. SOPHIA SKEES: It's always amazing how the North Star still stayed there and never moved. It makes me want to watch it, again, over again.

SCHAPER: But is $3 million of taxpayer money on the planetarium's projection system really worthy? Or is it just pork as Senator McCain suggests? Tim Michael(ph) of Maryville, Indiana, has his mind made up.

Mr. TIM MICHAEL: It's fabulous. And anything that gets kids excited about science, you know. If you could bring a group of kids out here and just get one kid to go, wow, this is cool, this is something I want to study when I grow up. Now we have another scientist, and this is something our country is lacking anyway, is science skills.

SCHAPER: The projector earmark request has not yet been granted. Congress won't take up earmarks again until after the election. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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