Astronauts Came to Morehead for 15 Years

After NASA astronaut training had been going on for a handful of years at Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill, the Manned Spacecraft Center became the hub of activity for astronauts, thus they spent far less time in Langley, VA and much more time in Houston, TX. Morehead was more remote for the astronauts from then on. So why keep the training at Morehead for another dozen years? Why not just shift celestial navigation and stellar identification training to another facility in Houston?

Find out the answers to these questions and much more when the book comes out next year.

And for all you Tar Heel fans out there, President Bill Friday in the mix:

Tony Jenzano (Morehead director), Gus Grissom (Mercury 7 astronaut), Bill Friday (UNC President), Deke Slayton (Mercury 7 astronaut), James Batten (Morehead astronaut trainer), and Jim Wadsworth (Morehead astronaut trainer). Sheet Film 19213, in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Photographic Laboratory Collection #P0031, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Tony Jenzano (Morehead director), Gus Grissom (Mercury 7 astronaut), Bill Friday (UNC President), Deke Slayton (Mercury 7 astronaut), James Batten (Morehead astronaut trainer), and Jim Wadsworth (Morehead astronaut trainer). Sheet Film 19213, in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Photographic Laboratory Collection #P0031, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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.

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.