Space Centre

I found a newspaper clipping from 1988 announcing that the Space Sciences Centre had decided not to renew the contract of their executive director.  I kept the article because of the fond  memories I have of the man, whose name was John.  When I met him he was executive director of the Queen Elizabeth II Planetarium, a beautiful little building that was erected to commemorate the coronation of our Queen in 1952 or thereabouts.  The construction, that is, not the coronation.  By the early 1970s it was old, very small, and badly in need of renovations, and the Department of Parks and Recreation was about to ask city council for approval of a replacement planetarium.

At that time I was temping at Parks & Rec as a staff writer (a whole ‘nother story) and since I was there for a couple of years I’d been in the habit of attending employee outings.  On one memorable occasion John was sitting across the table from me at a luncheon and we got into a deep conversation about relativity and the speed of light and associated problems (like if you had a torus moving at near-light speed would its centre diameter expand or contract?).  We scribbled up quite a few napkins that day, as I recall, as that was me in my scientific prime and I understood all that stuff.  One Thursday my boss, Ken, phoned me at home during my vacation and asked if I could come in and work with John on a project that had to be ready for the Tuesday night meeting of Council.  This was right up my alley — sharing a project with a guy who is that much fun and scoring big points with my boss at the same time?  — of course I’d come in.

The next morning I went in early and John was waiting for me at my office, and we agreed to go work in his office where all the project resources were.  At his office in the little planetarium he’d set up a typewriter across from his chair at the desk, which was covered with all kinds of paperwork already.  He told his secretary to hold his calls, bring in a fresh pot of coffee every few hours, and don’t let anyone as far as the door.  With that, we got down to business, and he oriented me to the project — it was nothing less than the Master Plan for the new planetarium —  I was so excited to be working on that, my fingers were typing in midair before I’d even sat down!  He’d been investigating sites and researching construction costs and where to get the best projector, how much more space and staff he’d want, even how many parking spaces would be needed.  He had determined how many more schoolchildren the city had who would need time in the theatre, and had held preliminary discussions with executives of related organizations. He had all the information on his desk or in his head, but Ken had sent me in because I had lots of experience with preparing material for council, digging up facts if needed, and editing.

So off we went, with a working title of Planetarium Master Plan.  We quickly settled into a routine, John dictating and me typing what he said but editing as we went along.  There was a formal outline to the project, which later became the table of contents, and if something came up too early in the sequence it would be set aside to be put into a later segment, or become an appendix.  A lot was left out altogether, being too detailed for inclusion in a master plan.  We worked on the document all that Friday, all of Saturday, and most of Sunday.  Food had been arriving periodically, but when we were done we went out to Sunday dinner, leaving behind  a draft that was easily retyped by the secretary and graphics that his technicians could readily produce.  We were both so confident of our work that we felt no need to read it one more time, double-check things — none of that.  It was good and we knew it.  On Monday I was back on vacation, but John phoned to tell me the booklet had passed the Superintendent of Parks & Rec. and had ben sent on to the city clerk to be added to the Tuesday meeting agenda.  I was thrilled when I heard it was approved by council on the first reading, and very proud to have been associated with its production.

A couple of years later a gleaming white spaceship was put up in the park next to the original planetarium, surrounded by trees and parking.  It had been designed by Canada’s premier architect and was just stunning, inside and out.  In time there was also a shed out front where telescopes and paraphernalia were stored for viewing nights — volunteers manned the scopes to help long lines of viewers get their peek at the eclipse, comet, planetary phenomenon, or anything else that made the sky interesting to look at.  The entrance let into a long curving ramp that was lined with science experiments people could get hands-on with, under a spinning solar system that was accurate in scale and relative speeds if I remember correctly.  John had managed to purchase a star projector from a superior manufacturer in Germany — he never went cheap, consistently pushing the envelope to ensure that his was the best possible facility.

I occasionally borrowed books from John’s gazillion-volume collection, and we’d visit and chat sometimes.  My biggest kick was the story about the planetarium production of a famous science fiction tale wherein computers were made more and more powerful until eventually the universe descended into complete entropy and the last stars faded to black, leaving only the artificial intelligence in another dimension.  John wanted the author, Isaac, there for the opening, but Isaac refused to fly.  John offered to drive to Boston to fetch him, which was going well in discussion until Isaac found out John intended to transport him in a Triumph!  Isaac never did show up, but the show was fabulous.

There’s another clipping here about how John retired early and spent a lot of time on his boat in the Maritimes before passing away at an age too young for someone so vital.  That made me sad.  The clippings are gone now, and my copy of the Planetarium Master Plan was donated to the archives of a branch of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in the city.  The old Planetarium is still there, awaiting renovation, and the newer Space Sciences Centre has become a shadow of its former self, having only static displays and no crowds of kids learning science by experimentation and curiosity, and the new operators are even messing with the architectural exterior.  At least it’s cheap, which is what the city wanted from John.  That makes me sad, too.  John had put together a world-class facility, but the bean-counters thought he’d gone too far.  It’s not world class any more, but it’s still pretty nice.  I hope John was proud.  I sure was.