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Legacy of Morehead Planetarium extends beyond Chapel Hill

The Morehead Planetarium is one of the most iconic landmarks on the UNC campus, and has likely been visited by most Chapel Hill residents. However, many of its visitors neglect to read deep enough into the planetarium’s history to discover that its legacy extends far beyond the city limits.

When it opened in 1949, Morehead Planetarium was only the sixth planetarium in the US, and the first on a university campus. Designed by the architects of the Jefferson Memorial, the planetarium was the most expensive building in NC history at the time of its completion.

A decade later, the planetarium began to serve as a training center for astronauts. Its facilities were used for teaching celestial navigation, so that astronauts could still pilot their spacecraft if navigational systems failed. From 1959 to 1975 Morehead hosted nearly every astronaut who participated in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz programs, including Neil Armstrong.

Celestial navigation training was discontinued as computers became more reliable. However, several instances required astronauts to call upon the techniques they learned at Morehead.

Gordon Cooper’s celestial navigation following an onboard power outage on the Mercury-Atlas 9 mission led to the most successful splashdown in history. The Apollo 12 team used the stars to reset their navigational systems after lightning struck their rocket during takeoff.    

The most famous of these instances was Apollo 13, during which an onboard explosion disabled navigation systems. Upon reentry to Earth’s atmosphere, astronauts were able to verify that their trajectory was correct using stars for guidance. One of the astronauts on the mission, Jim Lovell, later wrote to former Morehead Planetarium Director Tony Jenzano, thanking him for his training. The perseverance of the Apollo 13 team was such a feat that their story was made into the Academy Award-winning film, Apollo 13.

In 1973, Morehead opened its east wing, featuring an observatory which is used by physics and astronomy students, and available for reservation by the public on Fridays. In 1984, the planetarium became one of the first to utilize computer automation for its programs. By its 50th anniversary in 1999, the Morehead Planetarium may have faded to the status of a local museum. But by that time its theater had seated over five million spectators throughout its history.     

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