Astronauts in Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Carol “CJ” Jenzano grew up in the 1960s in a house where astronauts showed up whenever they felt like it. Those elite NASA astronauts could come to Morehead Planetarium & Science Center on a call-ahead basis to receive stellar identification training. Showing up at the planetarium director’s house beforehand was a perk that the astronauts loved. And CJ? She was the planetarium director’s daughter.

The Jenzanos never tipped anyone off that astronauts were in town. CJ and her brother were sworn to secrecy. Neil Armstrong was in town maybe, or John Glenn? Any of the others? Nope – don’t say a word, kids, and you can stay up and listen to us adults talk.

Astronauts sipped sodas, made small talk, and ate homemade dinners with the Jenzanos if they came in the night before training. Gus Grissom and Alan Shepard even went bowling with Tony and Myrtle (whom everyone called “Jay”) in what is now the Trader Joe’s at Eastgate Mall.

Not only did astronauts enjoy good food and good company, they luxuriated in what was a fame-free experience. Only after they were gone would Tony Jenzano spill the beans that these American heroes, these famous men on the covers of Time and Life, had come to town. The only notice anyone in Chapel Hill got was if a customer ordering a chocolate malt at Sutton’s Drug Store or a pizza at The Rathskeller looked a lot like Wally Schirra or Buzz Aldrin.

So how did this happen?

CJ’s dad was Tony Jenzano, the photogenic electronics expert who took over Morehead Planetarium in 1951 when the first director left after just two years. The outgoing director said two things as he left: “Make Tony the next director” and “I hate small towns.”

TonyJenzano_1971_courtesy_CJ_cropped

(Anthony F. Jenzano c. 1971, courtesy Carol Jenzano)

Nine years later, Tony Jenzano dreamed up and pitched to NASA a training program critical to astronaut survival: knowing star positions through planetarium training. Teaching astronauts to point their spacecraft using star positions would mean the difference between thrusting the right direction or the wrong direction. It would also mean the difference between pointing a heat shield correctly or incinerating instead. Bad alignment in either case would threaten success of the mission and survival of the astronauts aboard.

After looking at Jenzano’s proposal and comparing various institutions, NASA agreed: Morehead Planetarium was the most qualified institution to do the job. Morehead had top-of-the-line equipment, imminently qualified trainers, and a centralized location. While two other planetariums eventually also won the right to train astronauts, Morehead blazed the trail and won annual contracts from 1960 to 1975.

The training worked. Knowing the stars made it possible for astronauts to confirm alignment of their spacecraft. All missions had these alignments, and they were as critical to survival as oxygen tanks and carbon dioxide scrubbers. Would you want to enter Earth’s atmosphere with your heat shield pointing the wrong way?

So when CJ answered the door over the years as a young teenager, then as a college student, which steely-eyed missile man would be behind it? To CJ and her brother, it didn’t matter much why these heroes left TV screens and glossy magazine pages to come to Morehead Planetarium and visit the Jenzanos. It only mattered that they did come to visit them and to dwell under North Carolina skies.

___________________

To find out which astronaut teased CJ about her first crush on another astronaut, or to learn about the first time Morehead’s training saved astronaut lives during crisis, come back soon. The photograph below is from an event held to celebrate Morehead Planetarium & Science Center’s plans for expansion, an event honoring the legacy of Captain James Lovell who trained at Morehead eight times for his four missions.

cropped-cjjenzano_captlovell_mneece2.png

April 6, 2017. Left to Right: Carol “CJ” Jenzano, Captain James Lovell, and Michael G. Neece.
Taken during Morehead Planetarium & Science Center’s TakeUpSpace Event celebrating the upcoming renovation.

One thought on “Astronauts in Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s