Continued Celebration of North Carolina-NASA Connections

Cameron Clinard at ABC-11 interviewed me recently and produced this beautiful piece about former Morehead Director Tony Jenzano and the astronaut training he oversaw in Chapel Hill many years ago.

https://abc11.com/5166118/

Included is a nice reminder of our recent visit by Apollo 16 Moonwalker Charlie Duke and our March 13 visit by astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison.

#abc11 #moreheadplanetariumandsciencecenter #TonyJenzano #NASA #CameronClinard #NorthCarolinaSkies

Charlie Duke’s Return to Chapel Hill

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

(Photos Courtesy of UNC Wilson Library’s Durham Herald-Sun Photographic Collection)

From 1968 to 1972, humans repeatedly went to the Moon, venturing there nine times and landing on it successfully six times.  In practical terms, it means that 2018 to 2022 is a period of celebration and reflection for all of us as we look back fifty years to that powerful period of our human development. For space enthusiasts right now, there are hundreds of celebrations to attend, meet and greet photo opportunities with astronauts to seek out, documentaries to watch at film festivals (or via Netflix), and dozens of new books to read.

For one of these fifty-year celebrations, Brigadier General Charlie Duke—one of twenty-four men to travel to the Moon and one of twelve who walked on its surface—made his return to Chapel Hill, North Carolina on February 22, 2019.

Apollo 16 astronaut Duke regaled an audience of hundreds with his tales of astronaut training, some of which took place at UNC’s Morehead Planetarium, plus his adventures helping other astronauts get to the Moon, and then finally walking on its surface himself. It was surreal and otherworldly, listening to one of four living moon-walkers speak with humility about never thinking he would be picked from his peers to make one of these grand voyages.

The video that Charlie Duke live-narrated showed him comically attempting to fight against his bulky spacesuit to pick up a moon rock and, after several attempts, triumphantly catching it off an accidental toss only to realize he’d dropped the sample bag that it was to go into. He discussed a few of the scientific experiments he and John Young placed so that scientists back on Earth could learn more about the Moon’s history and physical structure.

Duke showed Young driving an electric car, the lunar rover, on the surface of the Moon and showed what the ride looked like for them using footage gathered by a rover-mounted camera. The rover kicked up quite a bit of moon dust that fell eerily back to the surface. The absence of air to interfere with dust falling highlighted the otherworldliness as that dust refused to make small clouds or puff out in a breeze that simply wasn’t there.

Duke brought us back to Earth as he quipped, “If you ever want a million dollar car with a dead battery, I can tell you where to find it.”

He recalled being Capcom during Apollo 11’s landing in 1969. As chief communicator for Mission Control, his voice was heard by over a billion people as he spoke with Neil Armstrong during and after that landing. Duke said that in spite of the tension of those most-watched minutes of any Apollo flight, it was gratifying that all his friends and neighbors from the Carolinas were happy he was doing a lot of the talking. Duke recounted, “They told me, ‘I only understood the parts when you were talking.’ I guess it was because of my southern accent.”

As one of Charlie Duke’s assistants for his recent visit, I not only heard his talk but also had the good fortune to drive him and his wife, Dotty Duke (UNC ’62), to and from the venue. I stood nearby and took photos of him warmly engaging with people during a meet and greet. I was able to listen in during his small press conference.

By the end of the evening, what struck me was not that he was an amazing hero who took big risks to help our country pioneer a new frontier. While that is certainly true, what struck me was his genuine attempt at connection with me—with anyone he met that evening—and the love for his fellow human beings that was evident in each interaction.

Out of over 100 billion people who have ever lived or the 7.6 billion currently living, only twenty-four people have ever gone to the Moon and only twelve walked upon it. If anyone could brag, be arrogant, or act like an angel who has just come here for a visit, it’s these men. They’ve literally touched the Moon. Charlie Duke, however, speaks of his time on the Moon with words like “an honor” and “humbling.”

Perhaps it is because he went to the Moon that we admire him. His warmth, humility, and love of his neighbors is, however, an even better reason to do so.

General Duke, thanks to you and Mrs. Duke for the visit. Come back soon!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Tonight at The Frontier

Update: Check out the replay here: https://video.unctv.org/video/rtp-180-outer-space-michael-neece-5xtrqn/

Update: Thanks to everyone who showed up or who streamed this live. A replay link will be provided soon for anyone who missed it or who wants to hear about it again.


Previous: Tune in to stream my five-minute version of what happened when astronauts came to Chapel Hill.

Stream it (starting at 6 PM): http://www.ncchannel.org/stream/

(photo courtesy of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center archives)

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.