Every July 20, the world rediscovers the thrill of Apollo 11, watching grainy footage of Neil Armstrong sinking his boot into moon dust — the first human to touch Earth’s “lonely satellite.”
But on the moon landing’s 49th anniversary, it bears recalling that both Armstong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin learned to navigate the stars at UNC-Chapel Hill’s — students at the Morehead Planetarium.
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From 1959 to 1975, nearly every American space explorer studied under Morehead’s dome. Its alumni roster boasts rocket-riding luminaries such as John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Jim Lovell, who commanded the ill-fated Apollo 13.
“Carolina is the only university in the country, in fact the world, that can claim all the astronauts as alumni,” said former Planetarium Director Tony Jenzano, according to the Morehead’s website.
The planetarium, built in 1949, was the gift of chemist and philanthropist John Motley Morehead III. It was the first of its kind in the South, and only the sixth in the nation at the time. Its treasure: a Zeiss Model II projector, which Morehead obtained in Sweden.
With a training device fashioned out of barber chairs, the astronaut trainees could practice their pitches and rolls, much like driver’s ed in space.
Lessons at the planetarium proved handy. During Apollo 12’s takeoff, lightning knocked out the navigation system, forcing the crew to steer by star until the computer could recover.
Lovell famously mapped Apollo’s path using his knowledge of the heavens after an explosion knocked out the navigator and a debris field clouded his view.
Lovell returned to the Morehead Planetarium in 2017 and sized up his old training capsule.
“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.”
Chapel Hill, unlike Houston, may not be immortalized by an astronaut’s quote. But it carries its share of credit for showing them the way home.
North Carolina and Space
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