Morehead Planetarium has rich history



John Motley Morehead III, class of 1891, gave UNC the money to build the iconic bell tower in 1931 but still wanted to continue giving back to the school that gave him his education.

Before he knew what he wanted to build for his school, Morehead consulted with Harvard scholars, such as Harlow Shapley­, who told him that North Carolina was in need of a cosmic awakening.

And thus, in 1949, Morehead Planetarium was built as a gift to the University.

It was the sixth planetarium to be built in the United States, and the first built on a college campus.

“Morehead is, in many ways, literally the front door of this University and to the whole state,” said James Moeser, a planetarium advisory board member and former UNC chancellor.

In 1972, the original building was expanded to include the observatory, a banquet hall and eight guest bedrooms where esteemed guests of the University can stay when they’re visiting the school. Since then, the planetarium has not gone through many construction changes, but in recent years, innovation has brought new programs and exhibits to life.


In 2002, under the direction of eventual Chancellor Holden Thorp, Morehead Planetarium evolved into the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, where students could further their education in science, technology, engineering and math. Molly Molpus, communications manager for the planetarium, said these education programs have grown into over 800 events across all 100 NC counties.

The Science Center is working to add exhibits that showcase its history and the future of science. One exhibit in particular will include information about astronauts.

Throughout the Space Race, NASA sent all of its astronauts to Morehead Planetarium. They were trained in celestial navigation, which helped them find their way through space based on where they were in relation to the stars.

This exhibit will be part of the $5.2 million renovation of the planetarium that began in April, called #TakeUpSpace. Aside from a general renovation of the building, other new exhibits include an area about UNC science research and the history of science research.

“It’s one of the few areas on campus where it really does serve a research education function for the University, but it also has a significant statewide function,” said Nicholas Graham, University archivist.

To continue its outreach efforts, the planetarium established the North Carolina Science Festival in 2010, which celebrates science through different events held annually across the state. For two weeks each April, science lovers can learn, create and join others in a variety of events like robot competitions and nature walks.

“We send educators all across North Carolina to educate and expose the whole population of the state to the fun of science, technology, engineering and math,” Molpus said.

Making Connections

Moeser said about 200 UNC students work at the planetarium, making it second to only the library in employing students. Student employees do everything from guiding tours to narrating planetarium shows to greeting the 250,000 young students who visit the planetarium annually.

“When the children come through, they see young Carolina students wearing name badges from, in many cases, towns like where they’re coming from,” Moeser said. “They see that connection in the students who helped them on this guided tour through the science education center. So that itself sends a strong message that, ‘I too could be a student at this University.’”


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