I Write… Children’s Books?

One of the most surprising events this year has been my unexpected excitement about writing a children’s book called When Astronauts Came to Town. This desire overwhelmed my creative energy already committed to creating books for adults about this same Morehead Planetarium history.

It’s my kids who made it inevitable. Helping them grow up means a constant stream of items coming into and being removed from their bedrooms. Small toys like action figures and Lego kits usually give way to game consoles, field hockey gear, and musical instruments. Similarly, children’s books usually get pulled from shelves to make way for YA, sci-fi, and horror novels.

Pulling Clarence the Copycat from my daughter’s shelf, I found myself crying over the idea that we would lose it. As I secreted this precious story away in my office and wiped my face, I looked at all my planetarium research papers. And it hit me.

“Kids would really love learning about Tony Jenzano. He made stars glow in a huge domed room. He had astronauts over for dinner.” If my reaction to a children’s book about the copycat were any indication, other parents could find an emotional connection to my children’s book about Tony.

Early this year, I wrote and rewrote. After several drafts, I went to a workshop delivered by a deeply passionate soul, Susie Wilde. That session ignited my passion for telling this story even more. CJ Jenzano, an experienced educator and the daughter of my book’s central character, gave great suggestions and the book took better shape.

And in the past month, Morehead Planetarium agreed to publish the book with an illustrator of my choice. This week’s successful meeting with a brilliant illustrator, Benlin Alexander, has made the book seem even more real.

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Michael Neece with Benlin Alexander

Early next year, publisher Morehead Planetarium and Science Center and distributor UNC Press will push these books to Amazon and to a bookstore (and planetarium gift shop) near you! Details to follow soon, so stay tuned.

Oh, and if you were concerned, those other books about Morehead are still in process. Again, stay tuned.

Charlie Duke’s Return to Chapel Hill

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(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!

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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)

Apollo Astronaut Alan Bean has died

Chapel Hill, NC
May 26, 2018
by Michael G. Neece

The fourth man to walk on the surface of the moon, Alan Bean, took ill on May 11 and today has died. It was widely misreported that he died yesterday, and as much as this writer wishes this were a continuation of misreporting, it sadly seems to be accurate this time that he has left us.

Bean was one of 62 astronauts to train at Morehead Planetarium during Morehead’s astronaut training era from 1960 – 1975.

In this photo, he is posing with then planetarium director Tony Jenzano, the third director of Morehead Planetarium from 1952 – 1981, with the 2.5-ton Zeiss Model VI planetarium star projector.

Alan Bean, born March 15, 1932, was selected to NASA’s third group of astronauts and first visited and trained at Morehead Planetarium in March of 1964. He next trained with us in April 1966 as backup commander for Gemini 10. He walked on the moon with Pete Conrad during the Apollo 12 mission in November 1969, becoming the fourth human to do so. Alan Bean returned to Morehead in February 1970 as he trained for his Skylab 3 mission which took place in 1973.

Group of 14 (NASA Astronaut Group 3) signed portrait, courtesy of the Carol CJ Jenzano collection, copyright 2018.
Group of 14 (NASA Astronaut Group 3) signed portrait, courtesy of the Carol CJ Jenzano collection, copyright 2018. Alan Bean is 4th from the left, front row.

My first exposure to Alan Bean’s story was through Andrew Chaikin’s amazing book about Apollo astronaut stories, A Man on the Moon. I next found a copy of Alan Bean’s artwork and his further stories in this magnificent book co-authored by Andrew Chaikin, Apollo: An Eyewitness Account by Astronaut/Explorer Artist/Moonwalker.

Like everyone at Morehead Planetarium & Science Center, my heart is heavy with loss at the news of Alan Bean’s passing. Thank you for gracing us with your adventures and your artwork that captured them and made us feel we’d lived them with you.

Unsung Heroes get to Sing out

While writing a book about astronaut heroes coming to Chapel Hill to train at Morehead Planetarium, it would be easy to overlook contributions of some hidden heroes, like Dr. Jocelyn Gill (fourth figure from the left in the photo above, between Gordon Cooper and Alan Shepard).

With her experience at MIT and her PhD from Yale in 1959, Dr. Gill became the Chief of In-flight Sciences for the Gemini missions in the mid-1960s. She visited Morehead Planetarium on several occasions in order to help astronauts and astronaut trainers integrate training with science goals for various missions.

I will surely uncover more of her story as I dig through archives, but if you know her stories, or any others I should know, please reach out to me at info@michaelgneece.com.