Morehead Planetarium provided a celestial navigation training program for NASA astronauts between 1959 and 1975. The program brought 62 astronauts to the planetarium, and the knowledge gained was used in the Mercury, Gemini, Skylab and Apollo missions.
“Because of this program, UNC-Chapel Hill is the only university in the world that can claim 62 astronauts as alumni,” said Todd Boyette, the current director of Morehead Planetarium, borrowing the quote from Tony Jenzano, the director of Morehead Planetarium at that time.
“(Jenzano) outlined the training program, flew to Washington D.C. and convinced NASA that this would happen.”
The program imitated the scenario in which the astronauts had to use their naked eyes to navigate, given the limited view of the small windows on space shuttles, Boyette said, explaining that the main technologies consisted of a star projector and barbers’ chairs.
The star projector displayed all the stars visible to naked eyes to the dome of the planetarium. Staff at the planetarium moved the chair around with the astronauts in it to disorient them and used a device to reproduce the limited view that an astronaut can look through.
“The astronaut did this over and over again to make sure they understood where they were in space so they could navigate and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere safely,” Boyette said.
Nothing in the mission experiences of the astronauts illustrate the importance of this capability better than the closing moment of former astronaut Gordon Cooper’s flight of the Mercury mission in the spring of 1961, said Gabi Tesoro, the granddaughter of Richard Knapp, a former educator at Morehead Planetarium.
Before the launch, Cooper made a careful sketch, based on his Morehead training, of exactly how the stars should look in his tiny pilot window, Tesoro said. He later transferred that sketch to the window of his shuttle.
In the final hour of the mission, the heat shield came loose and a short circuit of the automatic attitude control system occurred. Cooper had to take manual control and adjusted the spacecrafts’ attitude until the real stars outside his window lined up with the corresponding pencils marks on his glass.
“His splashdown came into the Pacific Ocean with the most accurate of the entire Mercury program. It was a great testimony to the value of training provided by the Morehead Planetarium,” Tesoro said.
The training program ceased in 1975 because of improved computer technology.
“This is one of the very few signs about the history that’s this recent,” said Michael Hill, a research branch supervisor at the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, said in reference to the new plaque.
Hill saw a feature about the training program and thought a sign would be a great memorial.
“It’s a remarkable part of Moreheads’ already remarkable history,” Boyette said.