'Why Wollongong? Why science?': story of our planetarium

Glen Moore retired last month after helping to create centres as a fun way to learn about science.

Glen Moore retired last month after helping to create centres as a fun way to learn about science.

After stepping down as director of Wollongong’s Science Centre and Planetarium last week, Glen Moore reminisces about his efforts to get it established. GREG ELLIS reports.

They say behind every great man there is a great woman.

And when a great man singles his partner out for supporting him every step of the way and saying it would have been impossible without her it is a relationship worth celebrating.

When Glen Moore retired last week after 44 years at University of Wollongong - during which he played the leading role in establishing Wollongong's Science Centre and Planetarium - he wasted no time in thanking his wife, Elizabeth.

What many people do not know is Elizabeth Moore has worked alongside her husband every step of the way as the Science Centre's retail manager.

"She has been as important as I have," Moore says, to which his wife adds: "We could not have done it without each other."

Glen Moore with his wife, Elizabeth, outside the Wollongong Science Centre and Planetarium. Picture: KIRK GILMOUR

Glen Moore with his wife, Elizabeth, outside the Wollongong Science Centre and Planetarium. Picture: KIRK GILMOUR

This week Moore's focus turned to his grandchildren and his own observatory, where he plans on making more discoveries in his favourite field of astronomy.

The Moores have two children, David and Catherine, and plan to spend more time with them and their grandchildren.

But Moore has nurtured many others, particularly in the field of science.

Without him and two friends - Questacon founder Mike Gore in Canberra, and Adelaide's Investigator Science and Technology Centre founder Barbara Hardy - Australia might not have a science centre of any type.

Professor Chris Bryant, of the Australian National Centre for Public Awareness and Science, describes Moore, Gore and Hardy as the three people who helped give birth to the science centre movement in Australia.

Moore mops up at the Science Centre after the 1998 floods that damaged many of the  centre’s exhibits.

Moore mops up at the Science Centre after the 1998 floods that damaged many of the centre’s exhibits.

In Wollongong, Moore was able to garner the help of powerful supporters, including former prime minister Paul Keating, former Science Minister Barry Jones, former UOW vice-chancellor Ken McKinnon and former state MP Colin Markham.

Despite enormous community support, Moore says he would not have been able to start the Science Centre without their help. Initially, there was "fairly substantial" opposition, he says.

"It was based around the idea of 'why Wollongong?' and 'why science?' "

Moore, who spent much of his career as a senior lecturer in physics at UOW, started his journey to establishing the Science Centre and Planetarium by introducing university courses in the liberal art style.

They received opposition at the time because they drew students from other faculties.

"In the 1970s, I decided to try and take this idea of science through astronomy further."

 Moore with the cast of a dinosaur’s jaw in 2000, soon after the Science Centre and Planetarium moved to its current location.

Moore with the cast of a dinosaur’s jaw in 2000, soon after the Science Centre and Planetarium moved to its current location.

Moore says astronomy was popular because it was pictorial and graphic and you could use that to teach about geology, biology, physics, chemistry and even politics.

"This great interest we have in the universe and our origins is something that grabs our attention and is something countries are willing to fund fundamental research into," he says.

Moore, 65, still gets excited about new discoveries, such as one announced last week of an asteroid with rings like Saturn.

He sees it as frontier knowledge and that is why he is going to continue working in retirement.

Do not be surprised if one day you hear of a planetary object being discovered by Moore.

In the 1970s, Moore also introduced a course through WEA and from that a Lord Mayoral Committee was formed and the Illawarra Planetarium Society was born.

Moore’s vision for the Science Centre was that it should provide a fun way to learn about science.

Moore’s vision for the Science Centre was that it should provide a fun way to learn about science.

"The idea was to promote the concept of having a planetarium in Wollongong," he says.

"In 1976, there was an interesting event that really galvanised the public imagination. That was the total eclipse that passed through Bombala.

"I was involved in co-ordinating some of the overseas visitation for that."

Moore says 1982 was a real turning point for him. He attended the International Planetarium Conference in Vancouver with his wife and three-year-old David, whom he took to a new kind of facility in that city that was referred to as a science centre.

"It was a very tiny little place in the basement of a shop," he says.

"David loved it . . . and we were told if you really like this you should go and see what they have in Seattle.

"I drove down there and went to what was called the Pacific Science Centre.

"The attention of a three-year-old is normally about 30 seconds . . . but after a full day there I said to him 'what would you like to do tomorrow' and his answer was 'come back here'.

"At that point my mind started thinking, 'there is something else here'."

Moore realised people of all ages were not just interested in a planetarium but in science generally.

On his return Moore kept lobbying for a planetarium, but within a couple of years the Illawarra planetarium project proposal fell over because of a change of priorities in the city.

"In 1984, there was a Steel Regional Assistance Program and everybody was keen to build new sources of revenue in Wollongong to overcome the downturn in steel and tourism was seen as one of the options," he says.

"The $20 million that was set aside for projects in Wollongong was going to be split between planetarium and football. It ended up the money being halved and there simply was not enough money to do both and only Brandon Park was built."

Moore was not going to give up.

In 1986, with Halley's Comet passing close to Earth, the public's attention was drawn to astronomy and more than 30,000 signatures were gathered for a petition in support of a planetarium.

In 1988, Moore managed to get hold of some of the Nissan huts at the old migrant hostel in Fairy Meadow as a potential site for a science centre and, importantly, gained the support of two influential politicians.

"One was Barry Jones, who was the minister for customs at the time, and [the other was] Paul Keating, who was then the treasurer."

A scheme was hatched whereby anybody exhibiting at Brisbane's Expo '88 could avoid duty and sales tax if they donated goods to the Wollongong Science Centre.

As a result, Moore received donations from the British, German, Japanese and Australian pavilions.

"From that, with some assistance from the university's maintenance staff, we built the first Science Centre at Campus East," Moore says.

"From there it continued to grow."

Moore split his time between the Department of Physics and the Science Centre until it moved to its present site as the first building on the University of Wollongong Innovation Campus.

The impetus for the new building came after a major flood in 1998 destroyed many of the Science Centre's displays.

"With the help of a lot of volunteers we got it back up and working and I think the government saw the level of community support," Moore says.

He became director when the new building opened in 2000.

Since then the Science Centre has consistently welcomed more than 60,000 visitors a year, making it one of Wollongong's most popular indoor tourist attractions.

Last year it celebrated its one millionth visitor.

Many of those visitors are school students from Sydney and the Illawarra, who get to learn about science through astronomy, just the way Moore likes to teach it.

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