Three planetariums engaged in astronaut training. Morehead was the trailblazer and chief among them, claiming all but one of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts on our list alumni, with fifteen years’ of contracts with NASA to back up the claim. The other two planetariums include Griffith Observatory’s Samuel Oschin Planetarium and the Burke Baker Planetarium in Houston. (Where else?)
This trip affords me the chance to visit one of those: Griffith. I’ll interview historian Tony Cook to put their astronaut training program in context alongside Tony Jenzano’s innovative program at Morehead. Already noteworthy from phone discussions with Cook: Griffith Observatory trained Chuck Yeager and his squadron, plus dozens (hundreds?) of other World War II pilots.
My second stop is The Museum of Planetarium Projectors, but why? See the picture above? It’s only two hours’ drive from Griffith, so how could I not? And it’s for sale, so investors should take note.
After both visits and interviews, I’ll be sure to report the most interesting discoveries I unearth. Meantime, wish me luck with my fifteen-hour driving day.
In April, Jonathan Frederick, Michael Frederick, and I ate lunch at Top of the Hill with Captain Jim Lovell (above, center). Jim Lovell was the commander of Apollo 13, CMP on Apollo 8, and astronaut on both Gemini 7 and Gemini 12. Upon my recommendation, Captain Lovell had the Lizard Chips, a spicy and tangy appetizer. When the spice got to him a bit at one point, he pointed to me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “If I can’t do my lecture tonight, it’s your fault.”
I also spent time with my latest buddy later that day, Carol “CJ” Jenzano (above, left). While she is known in education circles as an advocate students with disabilities, from the Philippines to Germany to right here in North Carolina, most people in this context will know her as the daughter of Tony Jenzano. He was the man who pitched the idea to NASA that the astronauts should know the stars in case of spacecraft equipment failure; a contract that led to 14 other contracts for a total of 15 years. That training helped nearly all human space flight missions from Mercury mission through the first few shuttle missions, especially on the ones where electrical systems shorted out or systems had to be shut down.
In the 1960s, Jim Lovell came to Chapel Hill eight times and visited the Jenzano home most or perhaps all of those times. CJ remembered Jim Lovell as “kind of a Daddy Astronaut,” meaning that even among astronauts, he exuded calm authority that made others turn to him for answers or for a sense of feeling grounded.
I felt honored to be in the presence of Captain Lovell and CJ when they met again after fifty years. While the rest of the month involved my talking to planetarium historians at other facilities, an astronaut who flew six space shuttle missions, and others from Morehead Planetarium past, this moment stood out. I was in the dome with a man who trained to reach for the stars and the then-teenage girl who used to sneak into that dome to listen quietly, in the dark, to that training.
Todd Boyette (above, far right) is Director of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. Today, he sent me a memorandum of understanding regarding my writing projects.
It may not sound particularly exciting, but what it says is this: I have his, and MPSC’s, full support on my research and writing projects. The support even includes funding for travel to meet with astronauts, astronaut trainers, full access to all archives, and assistance from any and all staff in pursuit of my efforts.
I’m taking that day off to spend with Captain Jim Lovell. I’ll have lunch with him, attend his press conference, attend his VIP meet & greet, then attend his lecture.
Guess I’m watching Apollo 13 with the family tomorrow night.
Yesterday, I spent time with Jim Horn, the man who was hired to maintain the Zeiss VI planetarium star projector you see above. (This is a photo I took in 1994 in the Morehead Planetarium star theater.) Jim shared with me dozens of slides, pictures, and artifacts he’d been given or that were trash-bound but that he rescued during his 1969 to 2001 tenure at Morehead. As I look over the images of the star projector, the building, employees, and astronauts, I’m blown away by the fact that Chapel Hill was every bit a NASA training hub as existed in the sixties and seventies.
Today, I’ll have lunch with Richard McColman, the head of the GSK Fulldome Theater (as the star theater is now called since its 2010 modernization). Richard’s tenure of 1992 to present has involved upgrading the theater from mechanical to digital. Morehead continues to be a world class facility in part due to Richard’s efforts, those dovetailing perfectly in with Jim Horn’s perpetual upgrades and improvements of the past.
Tomorrow, I’ll get a chance to work with Todd Boyette, the Director of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, to further map out the two Morehead book projects I am pursuing with his blessing.
As my research deepens, I’ll put tidbits here for those who are hungry to know about astronaut training at Morehead and stories, like those of under-the-stars marriage proposals or astronauts coming to dinner.