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

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.

A Big Boost for my Morehead Planetarium Books

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Todd Boyette (above, far right) is Director of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.  Today, he sent me a memorandum of understanding regarding my writing projects.
It may not sound particularly exciting, but what it says is this: I have his, and MPSC’s, full support on my research and writing projects. The support even includes funding for travel to meet with astronauts, astronaut trainers, full access to all archives, and assistance from any and all staff in pursuit of my efforts.
And Thursday?
I’m taking that day off to spend with Captain Jim Lovell. I’ll have lunch with him, attend his press conference, attend his VIP meet & greet, then attend his lecture.
Guess I’m watching Apollo 13 with the family tomorrow night.
(Photo above: Jim Horn, Denise Horn, Kate Neece (my brilliant bride), Keri Boyette, and Todd Boyette.)