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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.

Holiday Telescope Gift-giving Advice

Looking up from different parts of Earth means we don’t always see stars the same way as our brothers and sisters elsewhere on the orb, but all cultures stand breathless beneath these heavenly bodies and weave star stories filled with heroes, royalty, and beasts. Stargazing is far more than just astronomy. Skywatching results in folklore, a window into our collective hopes, fears, and dreams. Planets carve paths through our heavens over weeks and months. Galaxies appear as snapshots to our mortal eyes, great swirls hovering among diamonds scattered across the black velvet of night. Our heavens bind us together and these bonds should never be so neglected as they are today.

If you yearn to bring this wonder to your families, ponder for a moment if you could empower the poorest of us in this season of giving. Swirling and glowing clouds of light and dust thousands or millions of light-years away can provide inspiration to any who behold them. A donation to Astronomers Without Borders’ Share the Sky provides cosmic perspective to those in greatest need of inspiration and hope. Help others see the skies the way that Henrietta Swan Levitt, Andrew Grey, and Derrick Pitts have and these others will someday discover things to lift us all.

Now that you have considered charity for others, ponder bringing these gifts to your own family and friends. Get a start on selecting what telescopes to buy your loved ones using this handy guide.


1) Telescopes are for skywatching. That means you should think beyond the glass and metal telescope and think about what it represents!

Subscribe to a great sky-watching podcast, like Sky Tour.  At home, point your computer to www.heavens-above.com. On the go? Use your mobile device and dial up Heavens Above or download the android app: Heavens Above. On your Apple device, perhaps Star Chart is what you’ve needed all your life.

Really have the cosmic itch? See a star show at your local planetarium! (Make sure to ask which one is about constellations, though.) Go to your local skywatching sessions. Planetarium staff and telescope owners are friendly, polite, and love answering questions about the heavens.

NOTE: If you aren’t very interested in #1, you shouldn’t buy anything yet.

2) Want to buy something? What is your budget?

If a telescope is new and costs less than $200, it is likely plastic junk that will be hard to aim, hard to see through, and it will frustrate you into never using it again. If this is your budget, you have two options: binoculars or Craig’s List (or estate sales or other informal sales markets).

Ready to spend more? $400 is likely to get you a solid, satisfying piece of equipment along with good eyepieces and a case. Most will have a hand-paddle with buttons that will allow you to point the scope and align it to the sky easily. So which kind to buy?

I like these guides:

http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/types-of-telescopes/    and

https://moreheadplanetarium.org/news/releases/thinking-about-buying-a-telescope

3) Now think about logistics, like telescope weight and bulk.

(The Celestron CPC-8 and the author hoping you aren’t thinking “weight” and “bulk”)

In that picture, I look really happy, right? But that 85-lb telescope plus eyepieces case, stepstool, and power pack to keep it running…it means I can’t just grab this all the time. And taking it camping? Only if my vehicle can pull right up to the observing site.

The scope I’ve had for 20 years, however, is the one below and I take it out ten times as often. It’s just easy, light, and while it doesn’t collect as much light or give me as many heavenly bodies to look at, it’s more than enough to see the Moon and planets and a few things I really want to show my friends. (You can’t see the smile in this photo, but it’s there.)

Meade ETX90

(The Meade ETX-90 projecting the Sun just before the August 21, 2017 Total Solar Eclipse)

4) Where can you get your scope and eyepieces, tripod, and other accessories?

Pick up a copy of Astronomy Magazine or Sky & Telescope from your local bookstore’s magazine stands and flip through the ads. There are a lot of choices.

I own a device from each of the “big three” telescope manufacturers and I love them all. Don’t make me choose!

Celestron          Meade         Orion

…but, High Point Scientific has always given me balanced perspective regardless of the label on the telescope.

4) Want a more comprehensive guide of equipment? A thorough overview of how to select a telescope or set of binoculars, as well as what to do once you own it is written by a man who owns dozens of telescopes and reviews them professionally: Ed Ting. Check out his site http://www.scopereviews.com/begin.html

5) Last words of advice that might seem random, but you can thank me for them later:

  • Bug spray can destroy your optics. Don’t spray bug repellent near your eyepieces, telescope, finder scope, or filter sets. Don’t wipe your hands (or allow others to) on your telescopic equipment if you have bug spray oil on them.
  • Have kids and adults hold the footstool handle when looking through the eyepiece. If not, they a) could lose balance, and b) could grab your telescope and misalign it (or worse).
  • Fall, Winter, or Spring: Layers. And fingerless gloves. And hats. And blankets. And hot chocolate or coffee (off to the side, of course).
  • Cut off the mouth of a red balloon and put the remaining balloon snugly over your flashlights. Red light doesn’t harm your night vision, but other colors will!

and most importantly…

  • Skywatching is best done with friends and family. Sharing this experience means, among other things, not being terrified of accidentally falling upward into the sky and floating away into lonely and empty space by yourself. But it mostly means enjoying time pondering philosophy, science, art, and folklore with your own special community.

Questions? Praise? Corrections? Please leave a comment below!

Good luck, Happy Holidays, and may all your skies be filled with stars!

Quite Thankful

On this Thanksgiving, I say thank you to…

Dad and Mom, for carving out time for me and providing opportunities in music, martial arts, and the sciences. I would link to a picture of you wearing superhero outfits, but I’ll just point everyone to the image above and let them guess.

Dr. Brenda Scott, DPhil (Oxon), for providing a light for me to follow and loving me always.

Jonathan Keohane, for teaching me astronomy and physics in high school, then telling me about “this job I know where you can teach astronomy.”

Dorothy Findlen, for teaching me high school English. You helped me realize my deep love of storytelling and writing. And that I shouldn’t use sentence fragments. Like now.

Juanita Woods, for telling me in August 1991 that I should check the open jobs at Morehead Planetarium.

Jim Horn for being mentor, friend, and inspiration for chasing grand dreams. Your knowledge of Morehead Planetarium is a deep ocean and I am forever in your debt for letting me swim in those waters.

CJ Jenzano, for letting me into your life and loving me as if we’ve known each other for decades. I will write books with tales of your father and yourself embedded within, but only because of your patience, good humor, and kindness.

Todd Boyette, for seeing my inspiration and encouraging me to chase my dream of writing about Morehead Planetarium & Science Center’s past, present, and future.

Amy Sayle, for your years of friendship, your honest assessments of my writing, and sharing with me your own brilliant work. My first novel would never have happened were it not for your kind encouragement and your critical eye.

Kate Neece, for your love and support, especially when I am least deserving.

Don Hall, Jeff Hill, Holden Thorp, Richard McColman, Mickey Jo Sorrell, Jonathan Frederick, Owen Phairis, Austin and Beth Guiles, Carolyn Wallace, Adam Phelps, Michael Rowlett, Greg Parker, Rick Scott (no, not that one), Drew Gilmore, Veronica Yoshida, Eleanor Allen, Russ Collett, Bineyam Tafesse, Rinna Hoffman, Greg Campbell, Amit Lal, Derek Campbell, Leena Amarnath, Brian Pickett, Erin Payne, and David Pressley–for sharing your best work, your stories, your support, and inspiration with me.

My friends, too many to name, but you know who you are.

Nancy, Thomas, Sarah, and Rebecca.