How NC aided the ‘One Giant Leap’: Museum and planetarium celebrate Apollo 11

As the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 flight to the moon this week, North Carolinians are paying special attention to the state’s role in the historic achievement.

The Apollo 11 astronauts trained for their celestial navigation at Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill. The idea was to foolproof the astronauts’ mission — even if their navigational systems failed, the astronauts could use the stars to stay on course.

Sixty-two astronauts trained at the planetarium on UNC’s campus, including Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins from the Apollo 11 mission.

“You have to think about how primitive the technology was back then,” said Morehead Planetarium Director Todd Boyette. “The navigation systems, although automated, were not super reliable. ”

He compared the astronauts to ancient mariners who used the night sky to steer their ships.

68 - Apollo 11 crew in quarantine NASA KSC-69PC-429_orig.jpg
As seen in the PBS documentary series “Chasing the Moon,” Apollo 11 astronauts (L-R) Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., share jokes with well-wishers on the other side of the window of their Mobile Quarantine Facility aboard the USS Hornet. July 24, 1969. NASA / PBS

All things Apollo 11 will be celebrated Saturday in downtown Raleigh, as the North Carolina Museum of History holds its One Giant Leap Festival.

The museum will offer free moon pies, a zero-gravity bungee jump station and a virtual reality station that lets visitors take a trip to the moon as Neil Armstrong. The free festival also will include crafts and demonstrations, a screening of the Smithsonian Channel’s documentary “The Day We Walked on the Moon,” space trivia and talks by NASA Solar System Ambassadors. Food trucks will be on hand.

The festival will run from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m.

The history museum features exhibits that celebrate the huge role North Carolina has played in getting astronauts into space, according to Jessica Bandel, museum curator.

Among the Tar Heel individuals and other space contributions on display at the history museum:

  • North Carolina resident and Naval aviator Lt. Richard J. Barrett piloted the helicopter to drop Navy swimmers and recovery gear for the Apollo 11 astronauts after they landed in the Pacific Ocean. The astronauts had to wear isolation suits after recovery and remain in quarantine for 21 days just in case they were infected with “lunar organisms.”
  • Dr. Joel S. Watkins, a geologist who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, trained Apollo astronauts in geological mapping at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. Watkins developed a tool to measure moonquakes, and some of his seismic instruments are still on the moon.
  • Dr. Christine Darden, born in Monroe, worked as a mathematician and aeronautical engineer with NASA for 40 years. Darden was one of the scientists featured in the book “Hidden Figures.”
  • Charles Duke, born in Charlotte, was the Apollo 16 lunar module pilot and the tenth person to walk on the moon. Duke donated practice “moon rocks” to the South Carolina State Museum, which are on loan for the history museum exhibit. According to Bandel, Duke and other astronauts would use back lots at Kennedy Space Center to practice picking up the fake rocks in their space suits to prepare for the real thing.

  • Challenger astronaut Michael J. Smith from Beaufort was transfixed seeing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk the lunar surface in 1969. He realized his dream of being an astronaut as the Challenger pilot. Smith tragically lost his life when the space shuttle exploded in 1986.
  • Ham the Astrochimp’s space capsule is on display at the museum. Launched into space in 1961, Ham helped NASA understand that humans could survive space travel. He died at the North Carolina Zoo in 1982.
  • A-B Emblem Company in Weaverville has created NASA mission patches since Apollo 13.
  • Exide Missile batteries from Raleigh powered many parts of the Apollo 11 lunar lander.
From Apollo 13 up to the present, A-B Emblem, a company based in Weaverville (Buncombe County), has been the sole provider of official NASA mission patches. D. Kent Thompson NC Museum of History

Museum Director Ken Howard recalled watching the Apollo 11 landing on TV as a child and marveling at what humans were able to accomplish. He said the museum’s emphasis is on the enormous group effort required to get the astronauts to the moon and back. More than 400,000 people were contracted from multiple backgrounds and professions to work on the project.

For the planetarium’s part, Boyette explained that former planetarium director Tony Jenzano developed modules to teach astronauts the positions of key constellations during their flights. Astronauts would come to the planetarium for a few days at a time and receive eight to 12 hours of instruction a day.

Their views of the stars mimicked what they would see through the space shuttle windows, which was sometimes just one-eighth of the sky. At times they sat in barbers’ chairs or wooden pods. They would sometimes be spun in their chairs with their views blocked, then have to find the constellations that would guide their flights.

Star knowledge came in handy more than once. In 1963, Mercury-Atlas 9 astronaut Gordon Cooper was piloting the Faith 7. Toward the end of his mission orbiting the earth 22 times, Cooper had to manually steer the spacecraft by the constellations and made an incredibly accurate landing in the Pacific Ocean.

The Apollo 12 astronauts’ rocket was struck by lightning after liftoff in 1969, and they successfully used the stars to reset their navigation system.

The Morehead Planetarium will be joining the history museum in their Saturday festivities, plus the planetarium also is celebrating Apollo 11 in its own way amid renovations. A small exhibit honoring Apollo 11 will open Friday, and the “Carolina Skies” planetarium show will feature views of what the astronauts would have seen through their shuttle windows.

Also Friday, the planetarium will have a ceremony for the reception of Neil Armstrong’s medal for completing his celestial navigation training. The reception is at 3:30 p.m. The Armstrong medal will enter into the planetarium’s permanent exhibition once renovations are completed.

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Jennifer DeMoss is a science intern at The News & Observer through a fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Jennifer, an anthropologist with training in forest ecology and botany, is looking forward to covering the latest research in the North Carolina area.