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.

Under the Dome Again

In April, Jonathan Frederick, Michael Frederick, and I ate lunch at Top of the Hill with Captain Jim Lovell (above, center). Jim Lovell was the commander of Apollo 13, CMP on Apollo 8, and astronaut on both Gemini 7 and Gemini 12. Upon my recommendation, Captain Lovell had the Lizard Chips, a spicy and tangy appetizer. When the spice got to him a bit at one point, he pointed to me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “If I can’t do my lecture tonight, it’s your fault.”
I also spent time with my latest buddy later that day, Carol “CJ” Jenzano (above, left). While she is known in education circles as an advocate students with disabilities, from the Philippines to Germany to right here in North Carolina, most people in this context will know her as the daughter of Tony Jenzano. He was the man who pitched the idea to NASA that the astronauts should know the stars in case of spacecraft equipment failure; a contract that led to 14 other contracts for a total of 15 years. That training helped nearly all human space flight missions from Mercury mission through the first few shuttle missions, especially on the ones where electrical systems shorted out or systems had to be shut down.
In the 1960s, Jim Lovell came to Chapel Hill eight times and visited the Jenzano home most or perhaps all of those times. CJ remembered Jim Lovell as “kind of a Daddy Astronaut,” meaning that even among astronauts, he exuded calm authority that made others turn to him for answers or for a sense of feeling grounded.
I felt honored to be in the presence of Captain Lovell and CJ when they met again after fifty years. While the rest of the month involved my talking to planetarium historians at other facilities, an astronaut who flew six space shuttle missions, and others from Morehead Planetarium past, this moment stood out. I was in the dome with a man who trained to reach for the stars and the then-teenage girl who used to sneak into that dome to listen quietly, in the dark, to that training.