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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.”

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(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.

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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.

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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.

Astronaut Dick Gordon has died

In March of 1964, Dick Gordon first set foot in Morehead Planetarium for training, coming back six other times over the next four years. He worked with trainers in Morehead’s dome and classrooms, learning how to align his spacecraft with the stars. This training aided him in piloting Gemini 11 and eventually circling the Moon as Command Module Pilot on Apollo 12.

The fourth manned craft to go to the Moon and only the second to land, Apollo 12 was struck twice by lightning shortly after blast-off. Systems went haywire. Alan Bean heard ground control ask them to “set SCE to AUX” and he did so (thereby resetting critical systems). Before leaving orbit, however, it was left to Dick Gordon to realign the spacecraft, a task he accomplished using his Morehead training related to star identification.

Losing this American hero is especially sad for me. Peace to all who knew him and love to his family.

NPR Article about Dick Gordon

Feedback on Young Mister Tim novel one

Exact quotes from my St. Martin’s Press reviewer of 20 pages submitted for Manuscript Mart: “The writing in your submission is excellent. Your copy needed the least editing of anything I have seen today. And, you have a really cool hook.” A few updates needed on the query letter, but soon I will be sending out my manuscript for agent reviews.

Elkins, West Virginia

In September of 2016, I traveled to Elkins, West Virginia with a half-finished novel. It had no ending and no real sense of place, so I knew a visit was in order. With the help of Russ Collett, then-principal of Elkins High School, I gained a sense not just of the school and the students, but also of the town and people.

A tour of Davis & Elkins College furthered my understanding of my main character’s father, a theater professor at that college. It’s a magical place with mansions of the namesakes, donated to the college decades ago, adding to the grandeur of the academic setting students occupy.

Driving around the airport, which has a high school, technical school, and elementary school nestled in the criss-cross of the runways, I also found a quaint cemetery overlooking one of those runways with a church telling me stories of a fire from its condition.

Above are photos I took of the natural beauty of Elkins. Below are photos I took of some important locations key to my book.

My Novel is Done. Again.

Young Mister Tim: Past Imperfect, my YA novel about a high school senior who inadvertently slips into an alternate version of his past–and it’s done again!

This morning at 1 a.m., just past the witching hour on Halloween, I finished my major revision of the book. It is 15% leaner and what is left is, I think, much improved. No work of art is ever perfect in the eyes of its creator, but I do like it. The story, the characters, and the sci-fi element all make me happy.

Could it be better? I’m sure my critique partner and any future editors and publishers will suggest improvements. That sounds fun, though, since working on this novel has started journey I hope I never have to stop. And my most consistent critique partner–Dr. Amy Sayle of star party and storytelling fame–supports thoroughly yet doesn’t spare ego. I confess I am ready, however, to get onto the next book in the series (with three sequels planned).

I understand awards programs where winners cite family. I don’t expect awards or even nominations, but I think any artist whose family sticks around is an ego-maniac if he or she doesn’t recognize they had familial support.

My family made this book possible. With their blessing, I shut myself in an office to write, met with critique partners to gain insight, and talked about characters and plot points incessantly. A child running into my office for something they felt important was never turned away. My wife asking for help wasn’t either. During the last two years, though, they accommodated my writing bursts during evenings, weekends, holidays, and vacations.  I owe this success to them.

This weekend, I cross my fingers and bring copies of the manuscript to a writers’ conference. I’ll let you know if anything interesting happens. Whether it does or not, there is surely plenty more for me to work on.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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(Image of Young Mister Tim making a wish, Copyright 2017)