At 89, Jim Lovell walked into Morehead Planetarium on Thursday for the first time in decades, viewing pictures of himself as an eager young astronaut as he sat under the same white dome where he learned to navigate the stars.
In the 50 years since his last visit, he’d flown to the moon twice – most notably aboard the explosion-compromised Apollo 13 in 1970, when he uttered one of the world’s greatest understatements: “Houston, we have a problem.”
But the training that helped save the Apollo crew came back to him as he looked at the black-and-white photographs of the old Gemini training capsule and the Zeiss projectors that let him see the heavens through a small, triangular window.
“I recognize this device now,” he said. “If you sit in it, you see only part of the sky. So you really have to know the stars.”
Lovell, the only NASA astronaut to make two trips to the moon without stepping on its surface, spoke at UNC-Chapel Hill as the Morehead celebrated a $5.2 million upgrade that will transform and modernize the planetarium, which was built in 1949 as the first of its kind in the South.
While the 13-foot Zeiss projector that Lovell used has been replaced by digital imaging, the Morehead plans to update its Franklin Street dome as an interactive science hub.
In the early days of the space program, NASA sent all its astronauts to Chapel Hill, teaching them to find their way manually in the event of mechanical failure. Lovell recalled eight trips to Morehead with the likes of Neil Armstrong and Pete Conrad, the astronauts sitting under a hood on a chair that could mimic the roll, pitch and yaw of a space craft.
“We actually have a replica downstairs if you want to feel nostalgic and claustrophobic,” said Denise Woodward, program coordinator with the N.C. Science Festival.
Lovell made his first lunar trip with Apollo 8 in 1968, and on Thursday he recalled placing his thumb to the window and hiding the whole Earth behind it.
“The most spectacular thing, the thing we all saw, that was Apollo 8 and the first picture of Earth rise,” he said. “Really, God has given us a stage in which to perform, and how that play turns out is really up to us.”
But during the Apollo 13 mission, in April 1970, when an oxygen tank burst and started a leak in a second, his triangular window offered a grim view.
“I looked out the window and I could see gas escaping,” he said.
The range of constellations that a planetarium offers is severely narrowed inside a space capsule. Morehead theater manager Richard McColman said that to some extent an astronaut training there needs to learn the sky better than an astronomer.
“You just saw a triangle piece of sky,” Lovell said. “The stars you wanted to navigate perhaps were not there.”
Half a lifetime removed from Apollo 13’s successful return to Earth, Lovell credits optimism and teamwork. Having lived through budget cuts and space shuttle disasters, he offered high hopes for the space program, which saw comparatively modest cuts in President Trump’s budget proposal.
Lovell said he hopes moon missions will become common because “we barely examined the moon.” But as to exploring beyond that, he said, “A lot of people think going to Mars is around the corner.”
Instead, he said, more hard work awaits.
Morehead Planetarium and Science Center announced the start of a $5.2 million renovation project Thursday, the first significant upgrades to its teaching and exhibit spaces since the building was completed in 1949.
The project, called #TakeUpSpace, includes moving the main entrance to the west end of the building and creating a modern lobby, an exhibit that pays tribute to UNC’s history in science exploration, an interactive space, an updated demonstration stage and expanded exhibit galleries.
“Morehead will retain its majestic exterior, while inside, it will soon provide the kind of experiences visitors and students expect today,” Morehead director Todd Boyette said in a statement. “The results will be transformative. We will be solidly positioned among America’s leading university-based science outreach centers.”