CUPERTINO -- The lights went down in the cavernous theater and the children gasped with excitement. They had waited weeks for the show. They were bouncing in their chairs, whispering to friends, gazing up at the screen with big smiles.

The latest Disney movie? "Iron Man"? "Hunger Games"?

Hardly. Today's marquee attraction wasn't about cartoons or superheroes, but about eclipses and the moon's orbit, space travel and constellations. And the kids in attendance weren't the sons and daughters of Palo Alto tech entrepreneurs visiting an expensive private space camp. They were 114 third-graders, nearly all Latino, from Rocketship Si Se Puede Academy, an East San Jose elementary school where 91 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches and 66 percent are English-language learners.

"Has anybody seen the moon lately?" said astronomer Karl von Ahnen.

Dozens of hands shot up. "What did it look like?" he asked. "Full moon!" shouted the kids, all wearing matching purple shirts. "That's right," he said. "It's big and bright right now. Let's talk about why it looks that way."

For the past three years, similar scenes have played out at the Fujitsu Planetarium at De Anza College in Cupertino. The facility, which last year hosted 30,000 Bay Area children in school field trips to supplement their class work and spark interest in science, has been able to drop the $5 per-student admission for schools in low-income areas, allowing roughly 3,000 kids a year who otherwise wouldn't have a chance to visit the planetarium to come for free.

But now the donations to fund the free program have run out. Dozens of teachers eager to immerse their 8- and 9-year-olds in hands-on science from schools across Santa Clara and San Mateo counties are being turned away.

"You feel like it's not fair. We all feel awful," said Caron Blinick, dean of community and continuing education at De Anza. "We know that for many of these students it's a critical part of their learning. Every student should have the same opportunity."

With help from Wish Book readers, the planetarium hopes to raises $15,000 so it can provide field trips to another 3,000 low-income children next year. They money funds staff time, utilities and other basic costs to run the facility, which was built in 1967 and upgraded in 2007 with state-of-the-art equipment.

"It is one of the best field trips that we go on," said Mirell Kazos, a third-grade teacher at Bishop Elementary School in Sunnyvale. "The kids really look forward to it. It gives them an insight to a college campus. We get there early and talk about the possibilities and the future and college. And then when we get to the planetarium, and it surrounds them with planets and stars."

Like other schools in the free program, Bishop has students whose parents work two jobs or don't have the background or resources to bring their children.

"It brings science to life in ways that a textbook can't," Kazos said. "The kids are sitting in these big chairs in this dome-shaped building, and all of the planets are coming toward them one by one, explained to them. I feel like I'm a creative teacher, but I'm not an astronomer. When we come back and write about it in our journals, they say it was fantastic."

Planetariums, which date back to ancient Greece, are theaters that present astronomical imagery. At De Anza, viewers ooh and ahh at a realistic night sky showing the locations of stars and planets on a 50-foot-high dome, as they are zoomed through the universe with high-tech projectors, lenses, computer graphics, LED lighting and surround-sound audio. Shows focus on topics ranging from black holes to the Earth's relationship with the moon.

Blinick noted that large numbers of students in college astronomy programs say they first became interested in space and physics after visiting planetariums as children. Famed astronomer Carl Sagan grew up in an apartment in Brooklyn, for example. His father was an immigrant garment worker and his mother was a housewife. Sagan's passion for science was sparked by visits to the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City as a child, along with reading science fiction books and attending the World's Fair.

As schools have had to cut back on field trips in recent years, there has been a gap, Blinick said, between educational experiences among rich and poor schools. Wonder and inspiration of science, a critical subject for Silicon Valley, she said, shouldn't just be for privileged kids.

"America is near the bottom of students seeking science and math careers," she said. "We need to get more students interested in science at a young age."

After the recent show, the kids from Rocketship Si Se Puede Academy filed out in a long line.

"I liked it best when they pointed at the moon," said Adam Cruz, 8. "I'm going to go outside tonight and look at the sky."

Ruby Rios, also 8, said she would remember the visit for a long time.

"I liked it when we were spinning around," she said. "I learned a lot about the planets."

And what does she want to be when she grows up?

"A teacher," she said, beaming.

Comments about Wish Book stories? Email wishbook@mercurynews.com or call coordinator Leigh Poitinger at 408-920-5972. "Like" our page at Facebook.com/mercurynews.wishbook.

HOW TO HELP
Readers can help Fujitsu Planetarium raise $15,000 to provide astronomy field trips for 3,000 low-income children. A gift of $5 would cover the cost of one student; a gift of $150 would enable an entire class to attend. Donate to Wish Book at www.mercurynews.info/wishbook or clip the coupon.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To learn more about Fujitsu Planetarium, go to http://planetarium.deanza.edu.