Astronauts Came to Morehead for 15 Years

After NASA astronaut training had been going on for a handful of years at Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill, the Manned Spacecraft Center became the hub of activity for astronauts, thus they spent far less time in Langley, VA and much more time in Houston, TX. Morehead was more remote for the astronauts from then on. So why keep the training at Morehead for another dozen years? Why not just shift celestial navigation and stellar identification training to another facility in Houston?

Find out the answers to these questions and much more when the book comes out next year.

And for all you Tar Heel fans out there, President Bill Friday in the mix:

Tony Jenzano (Morehead director), Gus Grissom (Mercury 7 astronaut), Bill Friday (UNC President), Deke Slayton (Mercury 7 astronaut), James Batten (Morehead astronaut trainer), and Jim Wadsworth (Morehead astronaut trainer). Sheet Film 19213, in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Photographic Laboratory Collection #P0031, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Tony Jenzano (Morehead director), Gus Grissom (Mercury 7 astronaut), Bill Friday (UNC President), Deke Slayton (Mercury 7 astronaut), James Batten (Morehead astronaut trainer), and Jim Wadsworth (Morehead astronaut trainer). Sheet Film 19213, in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Photographic Laboratory Collection #P0031, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

18 Months of Research and I *just* Found out Something Mind-Blowing

After 18 months of research, here are my new mind-blowing revelations:

  1. The astronaut training program almost didn’t happen!
  2. Morehead Planetarium had another director that we never hear about whom we now need to honor.

I’ve been working at Morehead Planetarium for 18 years across a 27-year span and have been interviewing Morehead Planetarium family for the past 18 months and I only found this out in the last 24 hours.

What does this Mean?

Tony Jenzano, the man who made all the astronaut training happen from 1960 – 1975, the man who I thought was the second director of Morehead Planetarium was really the third director. More importantly, he almost didn’t get the chance to become director at all.

As a young man, Tony graduated from high school in Philadelphia, went into the Navy to fight in WWII, and at the end of the war stumbled into the planetarium profession as an electronics technician. When Tony’s director left Philadelphia to become the first director of Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill, NC, Tony joined him. He was on loan to Morehead for one month starting in 1949.

Hand Of Fate, Part I: Outside of East and West Germany, only one man in the world understood Zeiss star projector equipment at its deepest levels, and that man was Tony Jenzano. He was indispensable. The one-month loan turned into a lifetime.

Tony Jenzano settled into his new home and happily worked for the “Mister Wizard of his day” Dr. Roy K. Marshall, a man who had his own TV science show. Tony expected to have a long and happy career as a planetarium technician.

Hand of Fate, Part II: In 1951, the first director of Morehead left after 22 months. Official reasons for his departure involved dislike of weekly air travel to Philadelphia to film his TV show plus Roy’s dislike of being “less famous” in Chapel Hill, North Carolina than in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There were likely other reasons, but those suffice for this story.

Upon Roy Marshall’s exit, was the logical choice for director Tony Jenzano? Tony had experience and was unarguably a genius with anything electrical or mechanical, but his lack of college degree knocked him out of the running.

UNC astronomy professor Douglas Duke was tapped to take temporary leadership of Morehead while a search was conducted to find a new permanent director.

Hand of Fate, Part III: Douglas Duke moved and took up a role as astronomy professor at a university in Florida the same year as Marshall’s exit from Morehead. Details are hazy at this point as to why and how this happened, but he never appears in any documentation after the initial announcement.

Newspaper articles from March 1, 1951 to 1959 mention Tony Jenzano as Acting Manager, Manager, Acting Director, or Director in several articles. After 1959, he is “Director Jenzano.” Thus, he became the second director/leader (regardless of exact title) after Marshall’s exit, right?


As much as Tony Jenzano was the perfect fit in the director role at Morehead Planetarium, we can only say so now in hindsight. After all, he established and prioritized programs for school kids; he brought in 62 astronauts for 15 years for training; he oversaw technical upgrades that consistently kept Morehead a world-class planetarium. But that’s hindsight.

The effort to find a director persisted at least a few months. In November 1951, a new “Chairman of Programs” position was created, one that was effectively the director role. It was a role overseeing all other staff, including Tony Jenzano.

The new Chairman of Programs role went to Dick Emmons, an astronomer with mile-long credentials both in astronomical discovery and in planetarium work. He settled in. Dick began overseeing the facility and wrote an article for the university newspaper.

Hand of Fate, Part IV: After three months, Dick’s father passed away and it forced Dick to relocate to care for his family. It left Morehead again without a definitive leader–a void that Tony filled starting in January 1952.

Having spoken with Dick Emmons’ daughter today (thanks to a tip from my dear friend and colleague, Mickey Jo Sorrell) and having confirmed through newspaper articles most of the relevant details, I confirm that Dick Emmons was Morehead’s second director, albeit for only a short time. His tenure there looked quite promising, but was cut short. His swift exit under sad circumstances was against the odds, but that exit shaped illustrious and brilliant careers for Dick Emmons and Tony Jenzano.

Had Dick Emmons remained as Morehead’s director, would astronauts still have trained at Morehead? Would they have returned many times over the course of 15 years? It’s possible, but since it was Tony’s vision that made the astronaut program happen, I think it’s unlikely.

Regardless of how and why, Dick Emmons was Morehead’s second director, and we now know that Tony Jenzano was really third.


Jeanne Bishop, daughter of Dick Emmons and eminent planetarian in her own right, recounted for me by phone a small fraction of her father’s astronomical contributions. Of her father’s time at Morehead, she said that two very sad occurrences took place. First was on Christmas 1951 when her father sat in hunger and without company. He’d not realized or been told that all restaurants would be closed that day in small town Chapel Hill and all the surrounding towns for miles. Perhaps he’d turned down invitations so as not to be a burden to some local family? Either way, it was one sad memory of his time in North Carolina.

The other occurrence was, of course, the loss of his father.

In January 1952, on his last day working at Morehead Planetarium, Dick Emmons quietly set the Zeiss star projector controls one last time. He recreated the starry night sky to look exactly as it had just days earlier on the day of his father’s death. In setting the stars to the past, he put Morehead firmly in his own past and left the building for the last time.

Astronauts in her Home

In 1949, when Myrtle Jenzano found out she would be living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, she was willing to give it a try. Her husband, Tony, reassured her that they could leave after a few years if she hated it…an eventuality that never came.

Like Tony, Myrtle was born and raised in Philadelphia, a city that (like most cities) has a very small number of cows. From her new home in North Carolina, however, Myrtle could look out a window to see cows chewing cud in a nearby field. The noise of crickets at night, however, was the most unexpected and alien thing about her new town.

Most townsfolk had a hard time spelling Jenzano, so eventually Myrtle suggested everyone simply call her “Mrs. J,” and that became “Jay” over time.

Over the years, Tony and Myrtle-now-Jay adopted southern traditions – raising kids to say “sir” and “ma’am,” addressing strangers as neighbors and neighbors as dear friends.

Eleven years later, when Tony (who was the director of Morehead Planetarium) started inviting astronauts over for dinner, Jay was entertaining these national heroes in her home like a quintessential southerner. She served tea and lemonade, sometimes something a bit stronger, home-cooked meals, and good-natured, joyous fun times.

Jay was the life of any party and everyone loved the Jenzanos especially because of Jay. She treated her guests as dear friends. Tony was no slacker at exuding kindness and charm, but while everyone remembered his smile, no one could ever forget Jay’s hearty laugh.

The Jenzanos enriched Chapel Hill as they intertwined their kindness, warmth, hard work, and brilliance with the town. Almost seventy years after their arrival, many of their descendants still live here and their good deeds persist mostly in the form of the legacy at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.

But what about Jay’s stories? And the stories of astronaut dinners? What about Christmas card exchanges, social visits, and friendships with astronauts that spanned decades?

Find out when the book comes out next year!

Part of the Club

I traveled to Carol Jenzano’s home this past weekend to conduct more research about Morehead Planetarium’s astronaut training program in the 1960’s and 70’s. I drank from a fire hose of stories, documents, and photographs, and supped on finally-solved mysteries and good company. Carol has kept much of her father’s memorabilia from when he was director at Morehead Planetarium during that astronaut training era.

One of my favorite stories from those training days is captured in the photo above. Pete Conrad, a man who was yet to walk on the Moon, trained on stellar identification at Morehead Planetarium and was a quick study. He also (clearly) enjoyed his break time spent with the Jenzanos at their home just 2.5 miles away. Astronauts could show up whenever they wanted, announced or not, at Morehead or at the Jenzano household.

One afternoon, Carol heard a knock at the front door and opened it to find Pete. He explained his unexpected arrival by saying, “I asked everyone else if I could train on something and they all told me to go to hell, so I thought I’d just come here early instead. What’s for dinner?”

Later, while Pete enjoyed a cool breeze, a full stomach, and a cool drink on the porch with the Jenzanos, the phone rang. Myrtle answered and Carol followed her to listen in, hoping it was Neil Armstrong who had called. When her mom hung up, Carol asked, “Mom, was that Neil?” with clear excitement in her voice. Her mother answered in the affirmative, but a fraction of a second later, Pete’s voice came from behind Carol: “OH! So that’s how it is.”

So much for keeping her crush secret!

When Neil arrived a couple of hours later, Pete waved Neil over, saying, “Neil, why don’t you come sit over here next to Carol.”

Carol looks back and laughs at how fun the good-natured ribbing was. Mostly she quietly listened while the adults talked, but moments when an astronaut engaged her were the most memorable. Pete Conrad was one of the best at making everyone, even the kids in the room, feel like part of the astronauts’ special club.

Looking back, Neil Armstrong was the second of Carol’s innocent crushes. Scott Carpenter from the Original Seven was the first. He was smart, good-looking, and something about him was appealing.

Her third crush arose when she was a bit older: Gene Cernan, Commander of Apollo 17 and last man to lift a foot off of the Moon back in 1972. I asked Carol about a training weekend listed in my records, hoping to confirm if Gene was there or not. “Oh, no,” she replied. “He was way too sexy for me to forget him being there. If he’d been there that weekend, I would have remembered it.” Who could disagree with that?

Carol recalled a moment during social time in her home when Mike Collins, yet to be Command Module Pilot on Apollo 11, involved her in conversation so she wouldn’t feel left out. He asked her about a book she was reading in school. Carol’s respect for these astronauts who continuously tried to make each member of her family feel as special as they were made to feel – it stands out in her memory even in fifty-plus years later.

Whatever treatment Carol received from those astronauts she has handed down in abundance to me. When I ask about her memories, her answers help me feel that I lived with her through those events in spite of not having been there.

When Carol talks about Pete Conrad and the others, I hear the laughter out on that porch and feel like I, too, am part of the club.

The Arrival of Winter: Fly Me to the Moon

On the morning of December 21, 1968, three men who trained at Morehead Planetarium sat atop a Saturn V rocket, ready to become the first humans to travel to the Moon. Below is a picture of two of those men on the far right standing with planetarium director, Tony Jenzano, in the center.

White, McDivitt, Jenzano, Borman, and Lovell in Astronaut Training at Morehead Planetarium, in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Image Collection Collection #P0004, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
White, McDivitt, Jenzano, Borman, and Lovell in Astronaut Training at Morehead Planetarium, in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Image Collection Collection #P0004, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders (not pictured above, but who also trained at Morehead) made it around the Moon, saw its far side, and returned home safely on December 27, 1968. The astronauts could turn down the mission, being told that their odds of survival were about 50-50, but knowing how important the mission was to winning the Space Race against the Soviets, none of them did. Their Morehead training ensured that the astronauts knew star positions to use as guideposts to point the way home.

December 21, 2017 is forty-nine years after the launch of Apollo 8, but it is also the winter solstice marking the first day of winter.* The solstice is the day when sunrise and sunset positions stop creeping southward, hesitating for this one day, and start creeping northward toward spring.**

The solstice gives us the longest night and a season of long nights great for skywatching and storytelling under the stars. It also marks a time for planning a new year.

This winter solstice, look for sunset a few minutes after five p.m. The crescent Moon will be low in that direction. As you gaze at it—with binoculars if you have them—imagine what it would have been like to share that first human voyage to the Moon, the one that happened only forty-nine winters ago.

* Summer solstice for those in the southern hemisphere, the start of summer and longest day of the year.
** Fall for those in the southern hemisphere.