Saturday, 9 June 2018

#52Ancestors, Week 22, So Far Away

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

Space. It is so far away. It is also somewhere that has always fascinated my Dad.

Many nights, out in our slippers and pjs with him spotting stars, planets and comets when we were little, and not so little. Learning the names of constellations and where to find them; Southern Cross, Orion, Scorpio, Pleiades, Pegasus… Early mornings watching NASA launches and the moon landing. TV and newspaper reports about re-entry modules and returning astronauts. Watching “The Night Sky”, listening to Patrick Moore and Carl Sagan.

Repeat the above with grandchildren, maybe not the early mornings to see the moon landing though, unless someone has a time machine.

Space shuttles. Hubble. Voyager. Curiosity. Juno. ISS.

Dad joined the Royal Society in Wellington in 1973 after we moved there. He joined the Wellington Astronomical Society at about the same time. A campaign was afoot to establish a planetarium for the city and he became a member of the Wellington Planetarium Society.

A project to build a telescope was started. Many hours were spent grinding a 5cm thick glass “disc” on top of a 40 gallon drum to give it a concave surface; ultimately to become a lens. Watching Dad, or having a turn ourselves filled some time at weekends. I wonder where that piece of glass ended up.

The Golden Bay Planetarium was situated in Harris Street, on a piece of land made available by the Wellington City Council. It was next to Circa Theatre, before it was forcibly relocated by the council. It was named Golden Bay through some sponsorship (I think) from the Golden Bay Cement company. Once opened, many evenings and afternoons – week days and weekends – were taken up with public sessions run by a dedicated team of volunteers. Rubbing shoulders with career astronomers; Graham Blow, Alan Gilmour et al.

The Wellington City Council decided to undertake a makeover of Civic Square, redeveloping the whole area. A new library, carparking, open spaces. Included in the area they deemed theirs for redevelopment were the site of Circa Theatre and the Golden Bay Planetarium. What the authorities can give, they can just as easily take away.

What now ?

Many meetings and negotiations and eventually a move to share space with the Carter Observatory in the Botanic Gardens. Just at the top of the Cable Car. Members of the Wellington Planetarium Society continued their work there, running sessions for the public. Hosting sessions for sleepovers which began in 1993.

Lauren and I were at that first sleepover. A group of Brownies, their leaders and some parents who enjoyed a planetarium session, a look at the moon through the telescope, a night time walk through the gardens to see the glow worms. Then back for hot chocolate, and slept beneath the stars in the planetarium. What an experience. Made extra special because there was that sign on the wall with Grandad’s name; a founding member.

Today the Planetarium is manned mostly by graduate students from Victoria University. There are changing educational exhibitions and displays, and telescope viewing sessions on clear evenings.

The fascination Dad has for the stars, planets and galaxies, so far away, has been passed on to us. Astro-photography has piqued the interest of some. Just recognising the constellations and being able to identify the stars when out in the evening, brings back memories of those evenings long ago.

The constellation known to the ancient Greeks as Pleiades is known to Māori as Matariki. The constellation rises in midwinter in the southern hemisphere and for Māori it heralds the New Year. It is a moveable festival since it is tied not just to the rising of the constellation but to the phase of the moon as well. There are celebrations and fireworks – which make so much more sense than Guy Fawke’s Day in the late spring when it isn’t get dark until late.

Astronomy not Astrology. Only one is a science.

Thanks Dad. 

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