Cosmosphere icon decides to move on

Monday, May 13, 2002

When the Apollo 13 spaceship suffered a disastrous explosion on its way to the moon, Max Ary stayed glued to the TV set in his Hutchinson Community College dorm room watching the life-and-death drama unfold.

"I never knew that 30 years later the capsule would be sitting six blocks away from my dorm room," Ary said. "The story of Apollo 13 was monumental to me."

Ary, 52, resigned Friday as president and chief executive officer of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center and will take a long-elayed sabbatical to explore his options. His last day at the Cosmosphere is Aug. 9.

Bringing the Apollo 13 capsule to the Cosmosphere was one of Ary's crowning achievements. But after 27 years at the helm of the internationally acclaimed space museum, Ary said he's ready for a new challenge.

Senior Vice President Jeff Ollenburger was named interim director until the board decides how or whether to replace Ary.

"When he told me,it knocked me over," said Patty Carey, the Hutchinson native who founded the planetarium that would become the Cosmosphere. "Somehow,I could see it coming. He has had offers before, which I've weathered out. It'll take three people to replace Max. He's a dreamer with vision."

Ary said he has had 20 to 30 job offers from other museums over the years, including the Ford Museum at Dearborn, Mich., and the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

He decided to leave now because his staff is capable of running the Cosmosphere without him, he said.

"I know I can walk out the door here without it skipping a beat," Ary said.

Ary currently makes $106,800 a year, with an additional $32,000 in incentives and bonuses. However, he said his pay wasn't an issue in his decision to resign.

As president of the Cosmosphere, Ary said,he preferred to create exhibits and acquire historic space artifacts from around the world. But in recent years he has spent 70 to 80 percent of his time trying to raise funds.

"Spending that much time on fund-raising to keep it operating was very taxing to me," he said. "One of the places I've looked at has tremendous potential -- it has lots of money and a big endowment, but no leadership. I'm 52 now. I'm not sure I want to spend the rest of my career raising money. It's time for me to focus on the creative side and have fun."

Gowans stadium a factor

Ary acknowledged that the decision not to move the Gowans football stadium to another site in town was a factor in his decision to resign.

The stadium is east of the Cosmosphere and blocks the Cosmosphere from expansion. A Gowans Advisory Committee recently decided to seek voter approval to renovate the stadium rather than build it elsewhere.

"We occupy a quarter of the acreage we need," Ary said. "We really can't grow here. It was a blow to me when they kept the stadium here, and that did enter into my decision to seek a new challenge."

Ary said he is concerned about the Cosmosphere's future because it is facing new competition from other tourism venues in Kansas, which learned from the Cosmosphere's success. He cited Exploration Place in Wichita as an example of new competition.

"For many years we were the 800-pound gorilla in Kansas," Ary said. "We were the primary attraction bringing people to Kansas from out of state. There's been $350 million to $400 million invested in attractions elsewhere in Kansas, and in the next two to three years $150 million more will be spent. We'll have a lot of competition."

One of those will be Hutchinson's underground salt-mine museum, scheduled to open in a few years. Ary said it is "unusual and unique" and will attract more people to Hutchinson.

"Will there be synergy on attendance at the Cosmosphere?" he asked. "I hope and think that will happen, but there's not a lot of data that indicates building more attractions in a town automatically increases attendance at the others."

Jay Smith, director of the Reno County Museum, said Ary has been extremely helpful,offering advice and sharing ideas about how to launch the salt-mine museum.

"I've always known he was only a phone call or quick visit away," Smith said. "I think Max led the way in developing tourism here. He was a trailblazer for this town."

Well-known at NASA

Louis Parker, a NASA spokesman at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said Ary is well-known among NASA officials.

"Max is the consummate scrounger and pack rat," Parker said. "He has a nose for finding things that are valuable for the public to see. Because of Max, I've often said if NASA could have a public information space center in the Midwest, we'd have it in Hutchinson, Kansas."

Cosmosphere board chairman Derek Park said Ary will be missed.

"Max has been one of our state's greatest assets, and it's difficult to imagine the Cosmosphere without him," Park said.

Fellow board member Bob Barker said he was surprised to learn about Ary's resignation.

"He's been the creative force behind the Cosmosphere," Barker said. "I honestly don't know what approach we'll take to replace him. I think we need to focus on what we want the Cosmosphere to look like in 10 years. We are looking for continued growth."

Helen Unruh, director of membership and special projects at the Cosmosphere, said she has known Ary for 21 years.

"He's been my mentor and leader," she said. "He was always interested in my family and in my development at the Cosmosphere. I just felt a tremendous loss when he told me he was leaving."

A memorable trip

Unruh said she'll never forget traveling with Ary to Johnson Space Center in 1985 to retrieve two artifacts for the space museum -- a scoop used by Apollo astronauts on the moon and an actual rock from the lunar surface.

"He said, Why don't you hold the moon rock and I'll carry the scoop. Just don't let it out of your sight,' " Unruh recalled. "I've never held on to anything so tightly in my life. I was really honored he had enough confidence in me to carry that moon rock through the airport back to Kansas."

Home to Hutchinson

After attending Hutchinson Community College and helping with Carey's budding planetarium, Ary went to Wichita State University and then later took a job as director of the Noble Planetarium in Fort Worth, Texas.

He returned to the Hutchinson Planetarium in 1976 and began transforming it into a world-class space museum that last year attracted 285,000 visitors. He began with two employees, but now has about 70 people on staff.

Ary found space artifacts from around the world, including the most extensive display of Soviet space suits and spacecraft outside the Soviet Union.

Ary said he has always been fascinated with Apollo 13 and scrounged for bits and pieces of the spacecraft to display at the space museum.

But the connections he made with NASA officials ultimately led to far more than that.

In 1996 the Apollo 13 command module, still charred after its fiery re-entry from space, arrived in Hutchinson to become a centerpiece at the space museum.

Another space gem followed in 1999.

Ary was aboard the ship that located and recovered Virgil "Gus" Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 Mercury spacecraft from the Atlantic Ocean. The Cosmosphere restored the capsule and worked out a deal to own it and display it after it concludes its nationwide tour.

Future in Oklahoma City?

The Liberty Bell 7 currently is on display at the Kirkpatrick Science and Air Space Museum in Oklahoma City.

The Kirkpatrick center may be at the top of Ary's future job prospects, although Ary declined to reveal which museums he had toured. He said that at one time the only job that truly interested him was directing the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

But, he said, the museum is buffeted by intense politics.

"The Washington culture doesn't intrigue me as much as it once did," Ary said. "I feel very comfortable in this part of the country. Politics is not one of those things I enjoy, and at the Smithsonian every year it gets more and more political."

Ary said he wants to find a job that will let him focus on showing the public various aspects of science and history.

"I'm an educator down deep," Ary said. "If I won the lottery I think I'd be a science teacher of middle school kids. That would be fun."