New non-profit hopes to revive Centre of the Universe programs

Interpretive centre open Saturday nights for first time since 2013

When Victoria’s Ben Dorman worked at NASA, he saw a cartoon that read: “I think there’s more to life than unlocking the mysteries of the universe.”

Dorman, a Governor General’s gold-medal winner for this PhD thesis on the evolution of the stars, learned just that when his son was diagnosed with autism.

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Dorman, who worked at NASA as both a researcher and software developer, left astronomy, and he and wife Catriona Johnson eventually returned to Victoria to focus on their family.

Now the pair have teamed up as co-directors with business analyst Don Moffatt to head a non-profit society intent on restoring the former glory of the Centre of the Universe, shut down in 2013 as part of federal budget cuts.

It’s full circle for Dorman, now an IT consultant, who once again has his head in the stars.

“The goal is to have a professionally run centre with paid educators and updated digital displays,” said Dorman. “And once good people are in place, the sky is the limit.”

In August 2013, citing financial constraints, the National Research Council shut the doors to the Centre of the Universe. Staff were laid off and programming ceased.

The interpretive centre, opened in 2001, is adjacent to the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory on West Saanich Road. With it, the government also closed down public access to the observatory’s historic Plaskett telescope.

The public facility had cost an average of $310,000 a year to run and brought in between $50,000 and $60,000 in revenue.

There was fierce public reaction to the closure.

The government pledged to continue to pay the building’s taxes, maintenance and security while volunteers developed a sustainable way to operate the centre and its public programs.

Last year, the observatory was opened on Saturday nights for public viewings.

This year, volunteers redoubled their efforts and on May 9, the Centre of the Universe also opened for Saturday-night viewings.

For the first time since the 2013 closure, both the centre and the observatory are open on Saturday nights through September.

There are planetarium shows, lectures in the auditorium and displays. Organizers have even reached out to the arts community to provide music. Last Saturday night featured “Guitars Under the Stars.” Camps have also reopened for this summer.

“It’s a big deal that the Centre of the Universe is back,” said Moffatt.

The opening is thanks to more than 200 volunteers with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in Victoria. But local astronomers want more than Saturday night viewings for future generations.

That’s why the Friends of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory Society — now in the process of incorporating — is focused on rebuilding the interpretive centre, in partnership with the local astronomical society and the University of Victoria’s Science Venture camps. Moffatt said the impetus for the society came out of his meeting with NRC president John McDougall in August 2013, where McDougall said the research council would prefer to have a single community-based non-profit run the centre.

Dorman said the centre’s programs used to reach up to 45,000 adults and children a year, and now reach only a few thousand because of the closure. There’s now a huge gap between what the centre was and what it could be, said Dorman, who earned his PhD in astrophysics at the University of Victoria. “That’s a shame and we should do something about that. [The observatory] has been, throughout the last 100 years, a place people want to visit to find out about the stars.”

The government sank a lot of money into building the centre and to see it unused is a shame, Dorman said. While living in the United States, Dorman and his wife transformed a small volunteer-run autism group in the state of Maryland into a non-profit with paid staff.

With Moffatt, the couple intends to use that hands-on knowledge to revive the Centre of the Universe programming and displays through corporate donations, government grants and fundraising. They will soon be selling memberships for a nominal price, so as to involve the community in the centre’s evolution.

“It’s a nice cause to be involved in — something that can directly help the community I loved enough to move back to,” Dorman said. Observation nights at the Centre of the Universe and observatory are: May 30, July 18 and 25, Aug. 1, 8, and 29, and Sept. 12, from 7:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Entry gates close at 10 p.m. and attendance is limited to 200 visitors at any one time. June viewings are not possible because the nights are too bright.

charnett@timescolonist.com

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