By Laurie Paolicelli
Little-known but fascinating fact: between 1959 and 1975, nearly every astronaut who participated in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz programs trained on Franklin Street, in downtown Chapel Hill – at Morehead Planetarium. It’s here they learned how to navigate the stars.
Jim Lovell – the Apollo 13 astronaut who spoke those five, stoically articulated words – “Houston, we have a problem” – trained there as well. In a 2017 visit, Lovell credited the training he received at Morehead for helping him with his calm and careful command. Through teamwork and decisive leadership, Lovell and his crew modified the lunar module into an effective lifeboat to safely return to Earth.
Todd Boyette, director of Morehead Planetarium since 2007, marks Lovell’s return as a highlight of his long and illustrious career. A native North Carolinian, Boyette was raised near Raleigh and finished his undergraduate, graduate, and PhD work at NC State. He’s dedicated his life to teaching science to both adults and children: before moving to Chapel Hill he lived in the mountains, overseeing The Health Adventure, a program emphasizing experiential education. Among other treats and thrills was an interactive facility that taught museum goers about the human body through a 5-foot-high brain, and Bodyworks Gallery, where kids could try to jump as high as Michael Jordan or take a journey through a giant replica of their bloodstream.
Making health and science relatable and interesting to kids is part of the education journey. That’s why Morehead Planetarium and Science Center underwent a significant renovation in 2019-2020, including changes to the exhibit floor and upgrades in the Fulldome Theater.
When COVID hit, however, construction and reopening plans were halted. The Museum had to close. “The sad part was stopping the school visits,” Boyette says. “We see more than 80,000 kids a year who come here through school visits and many of them have never experienced astronomy and a night sky or had a chance to immerse themselves in topics about earth science or biology.”
Morehead also has a road show. The Mobile Planetarium provides an inflatable dome, a digital projection system and an inventory of shows to serve all grade levels, a part of the new Morehead In Motion: Earth & Beyond program. Earth & Beyond is a more comprehensive program focused on Earth Science and Astronomy designed to meet the needs of schools and NC Standard Course of Study guidelines. Educators can now pair the Mobile Planetarium with Earth & Beyond sessions for deeper learning that reinforces classroom instruction.
But there is nothing quite like the Fulldome.
A brand new 4K digital projection system gives viewers a much clearer view of the night sky. This new technology provides an even more immersive and dynamic experience for visitors in the planetarium’s theater.
“With six times the contrast and nearly seven times the brightness of our previous projection system, viewers will be able to see a broader field of stars,” says Richard McColman, Morehead’s Fulldome Theater Manager. The new projection system also features new state-of-the-art lenses delivering sharper and crisper images. “As technology evolves rapidly, we strive to provide hardware that keeps pace.” Morehead’s programming extends beyond astronomy, covering topics in earth science, biology, and more.
Morehead Planetarium and Science Center is open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Launch Lab, Science LIVE!, and exhibits are included with the purchase of a planetarium show ticket. For more information, please visit www.moreheadplanetarium.org.
“In the 21st century, museums have started turning to the community to remain relevant and successful,” Boyette says, equating the Planetarium’s portraits of the night sky with traditional museum. “By being welcoming and responsive, visitors feel more connected. For young children, community is essential to learning. As museums have become more municipally-minded, young children – and the community that comes with them – are transforming the museum experience.”
Listening to Boyette, one gets the impression that meeting Jim Lovell and meeting a busload of kids visiting the Planetarium were equally important – and you’d be right. Boyette says one of his most gratifying experiences is listening to a child’s laughter or sensing their excitement when they get off the bus and make their way to the Science Center. His head may be in the stars, but his heart is right here on Earth.
Morehead Planetarium and Science Center
250 East Franklin Street, UNC-Chapel Hill , Chapel Hill NC 27514
- Monday – Thursday: Closed for school groups
- Friday: 1:00 pm – 4:30 pm
- Saturday: 10:00 am – 6:00 pm
- Sunday: 1:00 pm – 6:00 pm
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.