Past Times

NASA astronauts trained in Chapel Hill

Project Mercury astronauts Gordon Cooper, John Glenn and Alan Shepherd trained at UNC’s Morehead Planetarium.
Project Mercury astronauts Gordon Cooper, John Glenn and Alan Shepherd trained at UNC’s Morehead Planetarium. Morehead Planetarium

School children visiting the Morehead Planetarium are in good company. In 1963, N&O writer Tom Bolch reported that it was once the training ground for America’s astronauts.

Morehead Planetarium has served as a classroom for America’s astronauts since April of 1960, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) decided its spacemen needed training in celestial navigation.

Such training was needed to give the astronaut a personal, uncomplicated means of estimating his location in the sky without benefit of flight instruments or a view of the earth.

It also provides each astronaut with a roadmap to the stars he will see and use for navigation during his flight.

Such a roadmap must be engraved by memory in the mind of each astronaut. It not only serves as a useful guide to navigation but as a reference to tell him when there’s an object in his path that shouldn’t be there, a warning so that he can change course and avoid a collision.

Training in observations of the stars also helps to make the astronaut a better scientific observer and reporter.

Members of the planetarium staff are now old hands at training spacemen. But before NASA officials approached Planetarium Director Anthony F. Jenzano with the idea of using the planetarium to help train the astronauts, few persons had even thought of such a thing.

“With the initial seven Project Mercury astronauts, we were learning along with them,” Director Jenzano explained.

Teaching techniques and aids had to be developed from scratch.

And the astronauts’ training schedule was so full and demanding that the course in celestial navigation at Chapel Hill had to be trimmed as much as possible. Their visits to the planetarium were seldom longer than two or three days, mostly on weekends and then at a sacrifice to whatever family life an astronaut can hope to have, Jenzano explained.

During the training the planetarium’s Zeiss projector is set up to show the position of the stars on the day planned for the launch into space.

The staff’s most hectic experience was the time it had to cover nearly 2,000 years in a single day. The projector had been set up for sky conditions of 10 BC, for one of the planetarium’s regular Christmas features “The Star of Bethlehem.”

NASA called and asked if the astronauts could drop in for a training session. Planetarium officials had to work overtime changing the projector from 10 BC to 1962 AD.

As most space buffs know, America’s manned space shots have rarely gotten off on schedule.

Such was the case last October during Wally Schirra’s six-orbit flight.

The flight was set for Oct. 1 and Schirra had learned the Oct. 1 position of the stars at the planetarium in April. But bad weather forced postponement of the flight until Oct. 3.

Schirra called Jenzano in Chapel Hill and asked him to fly down to Cape Canaveral to update his sky map.

It was the nearest Jenzano has come to watching an actual launch of one of his pupils. NASA officials said he could get a better view of the launch on television than he could at the Cape. So he flew back to Chapel Hill and watched it in his living room.…

NASA chose Chapel Hill as its training grounds for celestial navigation because of the national reputation of Morehead Planetarium and its staff. Its convenient location between Cape Canaveral and NASA’s operations at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia also played a part. The N&O Feb. 10, 1963

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