North Carolina

Before Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon, they came to NC to study the stars

Watch the Apollo 11 mission land on the moon

This montage video shows highlights from the Apollo 11 mission, from liftoff in Florida to Neil Armstrong's famous step to the departure from the moon.
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This montage video shows highlights from the Apollo 11 mission, from liftoff in Florida to Neil Armstrong's famous step to the departure from the moon.

Every July 20, the world rediscovers the thrill of Apollo 11, watching grainy footage of Neil Armstrong sinking his boot into moon dust — the first human to touch Earth’s “lonely satellite.”

But on the moon landing’s 49th anniversary, it bears recalling that both Armstong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin learned to navigate the stars at UNC-Chapel Hill’s — students at the Morehead Planetarium.

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The Apollo 11 crew: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. NASA

From 1959 to 1975, nearly every American space explorer studied under Morehead’s dome. Its alumni roster boasts rocket-riding luminaries such as John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Jim Lovell, who commanded the ill-fated Apollo 13.

“Carolina is the only university in the country, in fact the world, that can claim all the astronauts as alumni,” said former Planetarium Director Tony Jenzano, according to the Morehead’s website.

The planetarium, built in 1949, was the gift of chemist and philanthropist John Motley Morehead III. It was the first of its kind in the South, and only the sixth in the nation at the time. Its treasure: a Zeiss Model II projector, which Morehead obtained in Sweden.

With a training device fashioned out of barber chairs, the astronaut trainees could practice their pitches and rolls, much like driver’s ed in space.

Lessons at the planetarium proved handy. During Apollo 12’s takeoff, lightning knocked out the navigation system, forcing the crew to steer by star until the computer could recover.

Lovell famously mapped Apollo’s path using his knowledge of the heavens after an explosion knocked out the navigator and a debris field clouded his view.

VIDEO: Captain James Lovell, a NASA astronaut who was navigator on the Apollo 8 mission and commander of Apollo 13, describes how he could look out the window of Apollo 8 and cover the Earth from view with his thumb as he spoke Thursday, April 6,

Lovell returned to the Morehead Planetarium in 2017 and sized up his old training capsule.

“I recognize this device now,” he said. “If you sit in it, you see only part of the sky. So you really have to know the stars.”

Chapel Hill, unlike Houston, may not be immortalized by an astronaut’s quote. But it carries its share of credit for showing them the way home.

Josh Shaffer: 919-829-4818, @joshshaffer08

Christina Koch, who grew up in Jacksonville, NC and received both her undergraduate and Masters degree at NC State chosen by NASA to serve with a crew on the International Space Station scheduled to launch in 2019.



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