Morehead Planetarium and Science Center is located on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is one of the oldest and largest planetariums in the United States having welcomed more than 7 million visitors by its 60th anniversary in 2009. As a unit of the university, Morehead receives about one-third of its funding through state sources, one-third through ticket and gift sales, and one-third through gifts and grants.
First opened in 1949, the planetarium was used to train Gemini and Apollo program astronauts in celestial navigation. Until the late 1990s, it contained one of the largest working Copernican orreries in the world. The facility was donated to the university by alumnus John Motley Morehead III who invested more than $3 million in the facility.
Morehead Planetarium opened on May 10, 1949 after seventeen months of construction. The first planetarium in the South, it was the sixth to be built in the United States. Designed by the same architects who planned the Jefferson Memorial, the cost of its construction, more than $23,000,000 in today’s dollars, made it the most expensive building ever built in North Carolina at the time. Morehead Planetarium was officially dedicated during a ceremony held on May 10, 1949.
Since Zeiss, the German firm that produced planetarium projectors, had lost most of its factories during World War II, there were very few projectors available at the time. Morehead had to travel to Sweden, where he had previously served as American ambassador, to purchase a Zeiss Model II to serve as the heart of North Carolina’s new planetarium.
Let There Be Light was the planetarium’s first show.
From 1959 through 1975 every astronaut in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and Apollo–Soyuz Test Project programs spent hours in celestial navigation training at the planetarium. Morehead technicians developed simplified replicas of flight modules and tools for use in the training, often from plywood or cardboard. A mockup simulating key parts of the Gemini capsule was constructed from plywood and mounted on a barber chair to enable changes in pitch and yaw. Several of these items are on display at the planetarium. That training may have helped save astronauts’ lives on occasion. Astronauts aboard Apollo 12 called upon that training after their Saturn Vrocket was hit by lightning twice during ascent, knocking spacecraft systems offline and requiring them to configure navigation systems based on fixes taken manually. Gordon Cooper used his training to make the most accurate landing of Project Mercury after a power failure affected navigational systems. Astronauts enjoyed soft drinks, cookies and other snacks during their intense hours-long training session, leading planetarium employees to create the code name “cookie time” to refer to the training sessions. Occasionally, word of the sessions leaked out and noted clothing designer and Chapel Hill native Alexander Julian recalls meeting Mercury Astronauts during a visit to the planetarium while in junior high.
The first astronaut to train at Morehead, in March 1964, was Neil Armstrong. Armstrong visited again only months before the 1969 launch of Apollo 11, spending a total of 20 days at Morehead over 11 training sessions, more than any other astronaut. Astronauts commented that the “large dome” was “highly realistic”, calling the facility “superb”.
In all, the astronauts who trained at the planetarium were Buzz Aldrin, Joseph P. Allen, William Anders, Neil Armstrong, Charles Bassett, Alan Bean, Frank Borman, Vance D. Brand, John S. Bull, Scott Carpenter, Gerald P. Carr, Eugene Cernan, Roger B. Chaffee, Philip K. Chapman, Michael Collins, Pete Conrad, Gordon Cooper, Walter Cunningham, Charles Duke, Donn F. Eisele, Anthony W. England, Joe Engle, Ronald E. Evans, Theodore Freeman, Edward Givens, John Glenn, Richard F. Gordon Jr., Gus Grissom, Fred Haise, Karl Gordon Henize, James Irwin, Joseph P. Kerwin, William B. Lenoir, Don L. Lind, Anthony Llewellyn, Jack R. Lousma, Jim Lovell, Ken Mattingly, Bruce McCandless II, James McDivitt, Curt Michel, Edgar Mitchell, Story Musgrave, Brian O’Leary, Robert A. Parker, William R. Pogue, Stuart Roosa, Wally Schirra, Rusty Schweickart, David Scott, Elliot See, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, Thomas P. Stafford, Jack Swigert, William E. Thornton, Paul J. Weitz, Ed White, Clifton Williams, Alfred M. Worden, and John Young.