The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 — which didn’t make it to the moon — was probably the most famous of the missions Morehead’s training saved lives in, Boyette said. The Apollo 13 mission was made into a movie starring Tom Hanks in 1995,
“There’s a scene from the movie where Tom Hanks, who plays Captain Jim Lovell, looks out the window with a confirmation, and that actually happened,” he said. “He was drawing from the knowledge that he gained from his training at Morehead.”
Boyette said the idea for Morehead’s astronaut training program came from Anthony Jenzano, who served as the second director of the planetarium from 1951 to 1981.
“The director at the time, Tony Jenzano, was convinced that the men that NASA was planning to send into space needed to know the night sky just in case the navigation systems failed. They would have to be reliant on their own knowledge and skills to land safely,” he said.
“The ancient mariners back in history used the night sky to maneuver their ships. He thought that same kind of knowledge could be used to travel through space.”
Richard McColman, the Morehead Planetarium’s theater manager, said the planetarium’s celestial navigation training was a regular part of the preparation for a number of NASA’s missions, including Apollo 11 through Apollo 17, all of which attempted to land on the moon.
“The navigation system onboard the Apollo spacecraft had a certain amount of drift in it over time, and they needed to be able to correct for that,” he said.
Boyette said he does not think people realize how informed the astronauts had to be about the historic details of their jobs.
“A lot of times these astronauts are getting credit for their bravery, but I’m not sure they’re ever recognized for how studious they were, how hard they worked, how smart they had to be,” he said.
“These astronauts had to know astronomy, at least the night sky, better than any amateur astronomer at the time.”
Kim Tesoro is the daughter of Richard Knapp, who was Morehead’s assistant director during the celestial navigation training. Knapp died in April 2015, just a month after a marker commemorating Morehead’s NASA history was dedicated.
Tesoro said the astronauts’ training was crucial.
“I know that it was one of my dad’s, you know, proud achievements in his career to have the opportunity to work with them, and, of course, there were several notable incidences during those space trips that that training was called into play,” Tesoro said.
Tesoro remembered watching the first moon landing on TV as a young child. Her dad was excited, but she and her siblings didn’t fully reflect his attitude.
“We were not impressed with the snowy image on TV, and (our parents) were pretty chagrined at our lack of enthusiasm,” she said in an email.
Because she was so young, Tesoro said she took her father’s work with the astronauts for granted at the time — but when she got older, she realized how lucky he had been.
She believes his work with celestial navigation training in Chapel Hill helped him get the opportunity to work with NASA Space Shuttle astronauts later in his career.
During the years of training in Chapel Hill, the planetarium employees worked together to protect the privacy of the astronauts, McColman said. They even went so far as to use a code word.
“If there was a previously unscheduled visit about to happen, the staff would use the code term ‘cookie time’ to be able to speak to each other and alert them to an impending visit on the part of some astronauts,” he said.
Tesoro said she remembers the secrecy among the astronauts and Morehead staff.
“I would’ve been under the age of six, and I didn’t truly understand what was going on nor were they allowed to talk about it a lot,” she said.
“They were trying to keep the media from inundating the astronauts as they came through.”
Boyette is proud of the role the planetarium played in the space race.
“Being the only planetarium in the world to train astronauts in celestial navigation is a very big deal, a very important part of our history that we talk about,” he said.