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By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Adler Planetarium
The Adler Planetarium's Zeiss Mark VI projector was installed in 1970.

As if scientists weren't having enough problems due to federal budget freezes, now they're facing flak from Republican presidential candidate John McCain because of a $3 million planetarium projector. Which was never funded.

McCain has repeatedly taken his presidential rival (and Senate colleague) Barack Obama to task for seeking the $3 million earmark for Chicago's Adler Planetarium. The 40-year-old projector currently being used by the world-class planetarium is failing, and it's so obsolete that spare parts aren't available anymore. Obama and other members of the Illinois congressional delegation sought federal funds for a replacement.

That request fell by the wayside, and the funds never came through. But McCain is still trying to beat Obama over the head with the non-existent earmark, complaining about the "overhead projector" during Tuesday night's debate.

Anyone who's been to a planetarium knows that a planetarium projector is an incredibly complex and expensive device, and not your garden-variety overhead projector. Two years ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Griffith Observatory's new projector cost more than $3 million. Total cost of the Griffith's renovation: $93 million.

In response to McCain's comments, the Adler Planetarium issued a truth-squad statement today. Adler President Paul Knappenberger noted that the Griffith Observatory as well as New York's Hayden Planetarium received federal funding to replace their projection systems, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Legions of science fans are leaping to Adler's defense. Here's a selection, mostly cribbed from Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog. I'll be glad to add more if you send them along as a comment:

As I noted on Tuesday (and this morning), McCain's shares are hitting new lows on the political prediction markets. Maybe his planetarium problem was a factor.

Update for 12:50 p.m. ET Oct. 9: Tracey from Atlanta makes a good point in the comments below: All the publicity about this should help the Adler Planetarium raise the $3 million without the federal earmark. In fact, I'll be doing my part. I'm sending the planetarium a check for $140 today. This is in lieu of the political contributions that I never give because I'm a journalist. If everyone who has clicked onto this Web page so far sent in that amount as an average contribution, the planetarium would have more than $3 million in new money for their capital fund campaign. I'm going to write on my check that this is for "planetarium earmark avoidance," and you're free to do the same.

Update for 3:30 p.m. ET Oct. 9: After talking with the planetarium folks, I found that the best way to mark the check is to say it's for "Sky Theater renovation." (I'm adding the "earmark avoidance" part as well, just for fun.)