Bob Kelley is in love with the night sky. It is a love that has led to a 39 year career as coordinator of Scobee Planetarium on the San Antonio College campus. Kelley’s last show as coordinator was Friday, Jan. 28, but his love affair with the night sky is far from over.
Upon retirement, after directing an estimated 13,000 and 14,000 shows and hosting a total of more than 1 million people at the Scobee Education Center, Kelley plans to make his fourth trip to Alaska to confirm that it will in fact be his next home. Why Alaska? The aurora borealis, of course. For Kelley, the magnum opus of the night sky is just the next step in a continuum of marvel.
“When I’m looking up at the aurora it will be with the same wonder as the first time I saw the planetarium,” Kelley said.
That first time was in 1969. The John Jay astronomy club visited the SAC Planetarium, not yet renamed Scobee, on a field trip.
“Stars appeared and I was hooked,” Kelley said. “It was a magical experience for the director to create our own private universe.”
At the time, this personal connection to space was very real for Americans as the space race played out on their living room television sets. They held their breath while their countrymen orbited the earth, landed on the moon, and surmounted obstacles in their pursuit of the next frontier. The planetarium enhanced that feeling of intimacy with outer space.
Immediately after the presentation, Kelley found the planetarium director and asked for career advice. The director pointed him to University of Texas Pan-American in Edinburg. They had an astronomy program with a planetarium track. While it was ultimately the science that interested him, Kelley was moved by the ability to share the wonder of space exploration with a broader audience.
“The planetarium could share all these experiences,” Kelley said. “This in essence was a cosmic theater.”
As part of the coursework, planetarium education students had to write and produce their own planetarium programming. Kelley’s original works included Skies over Stonehenge and Skies of the Ancient Maya.
One might argue that such a course belongs in the education or communication department. However, planetarium directors are more than projection technicians. After the show patrons often ask questions, and Kelley calls upon his education and continuous learning in astrophysics to answer whatever he can. What he doesn’t know, he commits to finding out.
Kelley scored his dream job in the SAC Planetarium in the 1980s, as the U.S. space program was changing. More exploration was robotic. The shuttle program was less scintillating than its predecessor.
In that climate, it fell to Kelley and others like him to cultivate a personal connection to space for a new generation.
Two events brought space back to the forefront of public attention in the 1986: Halley’s Comet and the explosion of the Challenger.
The planetarium is committed to providing as much content as the public will consume. As Halley’s Comet made the perihelion of its 76 year orbit in 1986, the planetarium hosted 36,000 people over 600 shows, Kelley said.
“People made the connection with that this was a once in the lifetime comet,” Kelley said.
Once in a lifetime for most, that is. In one audience, Kelley discovered that he had a patron who had viewed the comet in 1910 as a young girl. He welcomed her to share her story with the other patrons in her viewing. Her story made a human connection to the sky, which is what the planetarium is all about.
These kinds of interactions are part of the joy of a planetarium the size of Kelley’s. Before its renovation, the planetarium held just under 100 visitors. The renovation included theater seating for 101.
After the explosion of the Challenger, Kelley was grateful to see that they did not have any school groups scheduled for a couple of days. It gave the staff time reflect on an appropriate way to honor the crew. In the end, of course, they knew that the best way to honor them would be to carry on exactly as they had been.
“They would have wanted the mission to continue,” Kelley said.
For the next few weeks there was a sobriety mixed in with the usual fun of imagined space travel.
“When the kids first came to the planetarium, you could feel in the mood of the kids that they knew about the Challenger tragedy,” Kelley said.
It was in the wake of the tragedy that the SAC Planetarium had its name changed. A reporter for The Ranger, the paper of the Alamo Community Colleges District, discovered that Challenger Commander Francis Scobee had attended SAC. In fact, it was where he met his wife June.
The renaming of the planetarium and space center was completed in 1994.
In 2008 the first of many major advances at the Scobee planetarium changed the iconic center-mount Minolta projection system to the Digistar system. After 30 years with the Minolta, Kelley misses its “presence” but has loved the revolutionary image quality of the Digistar 5.
He has also enjoyed constant support from college and district administration, who value planetarium not only for its role in science education, but for its valuable interface with the community. As the planetarium seeks to bring space to the community, it also brings SAC and Alamo Colleges.
“The college and the district believe in our message,” Kelley said.
In 2014 Scobee Planetarium became part of the Scobee Education Center, which includes the Challenger Learning System, a simulated space flight. Kelley sometimes serves as flight commander for groups in the Challenger system. With all of the expansion, Kelley considers his job to be the “SuperBowl” of planetarium direction.
“It’s been fun to have the capability to work in everything that the center does. It’s a dream job,” Kelley.
Feeling that it couldn’t get any better, Kelley decided it was time to move on, handing the reigns of the planetarium to Michelle Risse.