Training America’s astronauts

Many of America’s astronauts learn celestial navigation at Morehead Planetarium at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill campus. More than 50 years after training there, former astronaut Jim Lovell returns to Morehead.


Many of America's astronauts learned celestial navigation at Morehead Planetarium on the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill campus.

More than 50 years after training there, former astronaut Jim Lovell returns to Morehead.

Here's the story.

NASA sent all of its astronauts to Morehead Planetarium in the early days of the space program.

The agency's space pioneers may have been flying to the heavens, but they needed to know how to manually navigate, using the stars, in the event of mechanical failure.

You have to -- If you're sitting in it, you only see part of the sky, so you have to really get to know the stars to figure out -- If you want a star and it's not in your view, you have to know which way to go by looking at the sky that you can see.

Jim Lovell made eight trips to Chapel Hill to learn star navigation.

It provides an astronaut with a personal, uncomplicated way to place his location in the sky and in relation to Earth without using flight instruments.

Sometimes, Earth wasn't even in view.

We learned about the stars themselves.

I mean, looking at the dome and then looking at the constellations -- First of all, we looked at the constellations, because they were the guide for us to look at the stars in those constellations.

The planetarium's 13-foot Zeiss projector displayed the stars on the building's dome above them.

Astronauts would sit in a movable chair under a hood modeled after the window of the Gemini spacecraft.

And, so, if you look out one of those triangular-shaped windows, you just saw a triangular shape of the sky.

And so the stars that you wanted to navigate perhaps were not there.

We only had 37 stars in our computer of which to use.

Lovell is the only NASA astronaut to make two trips to the moon but never land there.

He used those navigation skills learned at Morehead on his second trip to the moon, on Apollo 13.

That's when an oxygen-tank explosion turned a lunar mission into a get-back-to-Earth-safely mission.

I saw the warning gauges on our two oxygen tanks, with one of them zero, and I could see the needle go down on the other one.

And, consequently, I knew that we were in deep, deep trouble then.

To cap that off, I looked out the side window, and I could see the gas escaping at a very high rate of speed, which told me that, shortly, we would be out of oxygen.

Because we used oxygen to produce electricity, we'd be out of electricity.

And because we used electricity to control the gimbal our vehicle, we would lose our propulsion system.

So we were -- Well, it's the low point, probably, of the flight, because we knew we were in deep trouble, but we had no way, at that time, to think about how to get out of it.

Lovell's greatest memory came on his first trip to the moon, in 1968, when Apollo 8 became the first spacecraft to orbit Earth's neighbor and witness the first earthrise.

On Apollo 8, when I put my thumb up to the window, that behind my thumb that I could hide was the Earth.

And I knew that, just 240,000 miles away, there was a body that had approximately 5 or 6 billion people on it, all striving for the same things in life.

And I really thought that for a while.

Here is this body, and all around is space.

I could see the moon right there, and the Sun was behind, but everything that I'd ever known is back there.

And I thought to myself in reality -- and, of course, it reinforces itself over the years -- really, that God has given us this stage.

God has given us this stage in which to perform.

And how that play turns out is really up to us.

Lovell is 89 years old, more than 50 years removed from space flight, but he is optimistic about space exploration.

However, he admits he's not sure whether it will be done by the government, private enterprise, or both.

And I hope that we first start going to the moon, because we barely, you know, examined the moon, and then use that architecture, the infrastructure of making moonflights rather common so that we could expand that to, eventually, you know, to a mission on Mars.