10/05/2011 03:25 EDT | Updated 12/05/2011 05:12 EST

Montreal Planetarium Closes Its Doors, Awaits New Home


MONTREAL - Pierre Chastenay paid his first visit to the Montreal Planetarium, Canada's oldest, when he was a teenager and he says that visit made a huge impact on him.

In fact, it may have changed his life.

"I remember that the show was very impressive and that made me think about the possibility of becoming a professional astronomer," he said Wednesday.

In the decades since that visit, Chastenay has stayed pretty close to the downtown facility with its trademark domed white roof; he's been the planetarium's astronomer for the past 23 years.

The operation is closing next week with more than six million star-struck visitors having passed through its doors since April 1, 1966, when it was officially inaugurated as the Dow planetarium.

Chastenay says there were regular crowds in those first few years.

People were instantly drawn to the images of the night sky, splashed onto the planetarium's dome by a huge projector.

"When we opened in 1966 there were more than 300,000 people coming in, so it was a huge success back then," said Chastenay, now 48.

"There were many people wanting to see the night sky in the planetarium for the first time."

Chastenay points out that in those days, public interest was spurred by the U.S.-Soviet space race.

"In the late '60s, early '70s, because of the space race which was all over the place, people were coming to the planetarium to hear about the newest discoveries and the newest in space exploration," he said.

Chastenay says he's had to answer some questions repeatedly over the years, like: What is a black hole? Are we alone in the universe? What is the origin of everything that surrounds us? What will be the fate of the universe?

But he looks forward to exciting times ahead in the field of astronomy and new questions that will need answers as more planets are now being discovered.

"We're beginning to wonder if life would be present on these planets and I would say that in the next 15-20 years we might be able to answer this very deep question," Chastenay said.

He admits attendance has been down at the old planetarium during the past few years and the technology there was simply outdated.

"We have slide projectors that we don't find pieces to repair (and) the film that we use is no being longer made," Chastenay said.

"So it's getting more and more difficult to operate the planetarium."

He and his team are now concentrating on the creation of the exhibits and shows which will be presented in a new planetarium.

The more modern, $46-million Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium, with its two "star theatres," is expected to open in Montreal's Olympic park in the spring of 2013.

Journalists were given a tour Wednesday of the old building, whose doors are closing Oct. 10.

They were also given a peek inside a time capsule that was placed inside the building's cornerstone when construction first began.

The capsule contained 10 English- and French-language newspapers, a letter from then-mayor Jean Drapeau as well as an audio tape from a local Montreal English radio station.

The aircheck included two ads for Dow brewery, which the planetarium was originally named after and which was located just across the street.

One front-page headline in the Montreal Star newspaper of July 16, 1965 read, "Beatniks kidnap QPP officer." The English-language newspaper ceased to exist in September 1979.