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.

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.

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.

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.