Chapel Hill, NC
Within my busy life, I explore the Morehead Planetarium astronaut training program story for a few minutes at a time, scattering an hour of time across a day. When I carve more insistently, I get a few hours in a row. But on Friday, I got a whole day to savor my research.
I scheduled Friday off to help my father set up his photography exhibit, but then my brilliant mom and my professional photographer sister already had it under control. Dad didn’t need any extra help, so said my sister and mother.
Thus, instead of hanging photographs in an exhibit, I found and scanned newspaper stories, NASA contracts, and vintage photographs of astronauts and their trainers. The vault at Morehead has multiple levels of security, so getting the right timing and permissions for two hours was an amazing treat. My next stop was the Chapel Hill Historical Society where I sifted through 30 years of history.
I have confirmation of Mercury astronauts eating out while in Chapel Hill, a quote for the local paper from a yet-to-launch Neil Armstrong, and hints about the true reasons for Morehead having a part in the American space program. My favorite finds of the day? Tony and Myrtle Jenzano directed the Red Cross fundraising in Chapel Hill in the early 1960’s and Tony taught local Boy Scouts astronomy in the planetarium star theater.
What were the new puzzles solved? How many yearly contracts Morehead had, who signed them, and what fees were paid. I have new-to-me photographs of astronauts, newspaper write-ups of Morehead Director Tony Jenzano’s community work and social life, and even some humorous statements made by kids at Morehead Planetarium over fifty years ago that were captured in a catch-all column in the weekly paper. One of many: a lad, walking out of a planetarium program about the Sun, said to a friend, “It’s no wonder that sunlight can travel 186,000 miles per second. It’s downhill all the way!”
When I find these nuggets of wisdom and humor from the past, it makes me feel my research is picking up speed. It’s definitely feeling easier, like it’s downhill all the way for me, too.
I have been many things across several careers, including writer, historian, computer programmer, high school science teacher, corporate technical trainer, martial arts instructor, and planetarian. I love the diverse types of work and hope to have two or three roles overlapping during any part of my life, partly because they inform each other, but partly because it means I have a much larger family.
I had a dear friend recently contest the idea of work environments being like homes and colleagues like family members – “family can’t fire you or lay you off or hold back your bonus.”
Yeah, but I think they can though. Flip open your device and browse through the news of child abuse (and worse) among family members. Or just plan your Thanksgiving with all parts of your family, especially those who cast votes for the opposite political party.
The flip side is that if you try hard, work at it, and get lucky, you can find the best friends of your life at work. Mentors and supervisors can become like big sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts, or cousins. Some become even closer. A select few can become chosen family.
One of my colleagues at Morehead Planetarium & Science Center just retired this week. She’s Mickey, the one smiling at you from the 7 o’clock position in the picture above. Wait, really look at her again:
Mickey is about the best role model I can think of when it comes to sharing tricks of how to teach science to anyone willing to listen. She’s mesmerizing, even when talking about branches of science I’m not “super into” (don’t judge me) because she’s relentless, subtly adjusting her approach to find the one right way to meet you on your own ground.
She notices everything around her, then acts to fix what is broken and help those who need help. She’s got decades on me, but has twice the energy I had ten years ago. Best of all, she’s a great role model for how to care deeply–about everything: politics, justice, science, education, children, old people, plants, wildlife, rivers, and even aliens if they are out there.
In the picture at the top, I have other dear mentors and friends, people from just one of my life-roles right now. They are people I would be crushed to lose contact with because they belong to one of my several families. One has changed the course of my life, a story for another day. Another has made it possible for me to write books, another story for yet another day. To quote David Wilcox, the American folk singer, “relationships are hard work. but it’s good work if you can get it.”
Some colleagues will always stay colleagues. Some are not able to have honest conversations or to treat you as an equivalent being with equal worth. But with all the others, your brave attempts to reach out can make many of them into far more than mere cohabitants within a place of toil.
How you strive to connect with your work family is just like any other endeavor–if you relentlessly foster kindness and caring, you cannot lose. You cannot lose because it is true and good and worthy of your effort, no matter what response you get.
Mickey, congratulations on your retirement. I can’t wait to see you at my house next week for an episode of From the Earth to the Moon. Glad you are still in my life!
In order to have more time to focus on writing books about Morehead history, I have discontinued the documentary project for now. You who supported the documentary, I appreciate and deeply value your kind words, sage wisdom, and willingness to give financial support either on Kickstarter or on Indiegogo. If you pledged financial support, note that the finances were never pulled since Kickstarter has an “all or nothing” policy and the campaign did not reach the “all” mark and Indiegogo was cancelled well before it concluded. (If you find this to be in error, please contact me immediately at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Clearly, my research efforts and the book projects continue! For your support on that central effort, you again have my sincere appreciation. These efforts will culminate soon in a research trip: I’m going to Spacefest in Tucson, AZ in July. At Spacefest, I will meet with several Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and shuttle astronauts, plus space journalists and science documentarians.
Meanwhile, I continue to interview astronaut trainers’ families, former Morehead staff, and many others affiliated with Chapel Hill history and Morehead Planetarium & Science Center.
Again, for all you have done to support me in these projects, I appreciate your support and enthusiasm. I look forward to more conversations regarding this amazing history I am uncovering with your help. If you have any suggestions, questions, or stories of your own to share about Morehead, please contact me! I’d love to hear from you.
Chapel Hill, NC
May 26, 2018
by Michael G. Neece
The fourth man to walk on the surface of the moon, Alan Bean, took ill on May 11 and today has died. It was widely misreported that he died yesterday, and as much as this writer wishes this were a continuation of misreporting, it sadly seems to be accurate this time that he has left us.
Bean was one of 62 astronauts to train at Morehead Planetarium during Morehead’s astronaut training era from 1960 – 1975.
In this photo, he is posing with then planetarium director Tony Jenzano, the third director of Morehead Planetarium from 1952 – 1981, with the 2.5-ton Zeiss Model VI planetarium star projector.
Alan Bean, born March 15, 1932, was selected to NASA’s third group of astronauts and first visited and trained at Morehead Planetarium in March of 1964. He next trained with us in April 1966 as backup commander for Gemini 10. He walked on the moon with Pete Conrad during the Apollo 12 mission in November 1969, becoming the fourth human to do so. Alan Bean returned to Morehead in February 1970 as he trained for his Skylab 3 mission which took place in 1973.
My first exposure to Alan Bean’s story was through Andrew Chaikin’s amazing book about Apollo astronaut stories, A Man on the Moon. I next found a copy of Alan Bean’s artwork and his further stories in this magnificent book co-authored by Andrew Chaikin, Apollo: An Eyewitness Account by Astronaut/Explorer Artist/Moonwalker.
Like everyone at Morehead Planetarium & Science Center, my heart is heavy with loss at the news of Alan Bean’s passing. Thank you for gracing us with your adventures and your artwork that captured them and made us feel we’d lived them with you.
Michael G. Neece broadcasted live from his home in Chapel Hill tonight, telling why North Carolina Skies: Tales of Astronauts in Chapel Hill matters in today’s world, took questions, and asked for your help in making the film happen. Catch the replay here:
Questions were asked (see answers below).
Alyssa asked how the Apollo astronauts were trained. The 37 guidance and navigation stars that were required knowledge for all of the later astronauts (Mercury astronauts had to know 57!), those were identified repeatedly during their trainings. They looked through a simulated port/window that restricted their field of view to just 60 degrees and they would have to align 2 or 3 stars exactly within that field of view, identifying them by name, and then type in those stars and positions into the guidance computers when they were actually on a mission. When there were rendezvous considerations or course-correction burns, they’d also have to train for those specifically knowing in advance of ever going on the mission itself so that it would already be familiar and easy to conjure up the knowledge.
If you have any other questions, feel free to contact me at email@example.com.