CHAPEL HILL — 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.
This is called celestial 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. They would be trained to do this even when the Earth wasn’t in view.
“I remember this device now,” says Gemini and Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell, as he looks at pictures of astronaut training in 1963. Lovell is working with other legends of the space program, including Neil Armstrong and John Glenn.
Lovell made eight trips to Chapel Hill to learn star navigation. Astronauts would sit in a movable chair under a hood modeled after the window of the Gemini spacecraft. Together, it simulated the pitch, roll and yaw of spacecraft.
“Once you sat in the seat under the hood, you can only see part of the sky, so you have to really get to know the stars,” says Lovell. “And that was the whole point of the device because it copied the interior of the spacecraft, so if you want a star that isn’t in your view, you have to know which way to go looking only at the sky you can see.”
The planetarium's 13–foot Zeiss projector displayed the stars on the building’s dome above them.
The astronauts were trained to find the constellations, which were then used as a guide to find the stars needed for navigation.
Lovell is the only NASA astronaut to make two trips to the moon but never land. He used those navigation skills learned at Morehead during his second trip to the moon on Apollo 13. That’s when an oxygen tank explosion turned a lunar mission into a recovery mission.
“I saw the quantity gauges on our two oxygen tanks with one zero and I could see the needle going down on the other, and I knew we were in deep trouble, to cap that off,” recalls Lovell, whose crew’s close brush with disaster captivated the world. “I looked out the window and I could see the gasses escaping at a high rate of speed, which told me shortly we would be out of oxygen—because we used oxygen to produce electricity, and because we used electricity to control and gimbal our vehicle. We would lose the propulsion system, so it was the low point of the flight because we knew we were in deep trouble but we had no time to think about how to get out of it.”
Lovell is 89. Though it’s been more than 50 years since his last spaceflight, 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.
“I hope that we first go back to the moon, because we’ve barely examined the moon, and then use that infrastructure of making moon flights common and use that to expand and go to a mission to mars”
Lovell’s greatest memory from his own space experience came on his first trip to the moon in 1968, when Apollo 8 became the first spacecraft to orbit Earth’s neighbor and witnessed the first Earthrise.
"On Apollo 8 when I put my thumb up to the window, that behind my thumb was earth, hidden, and I knew that 240,000 miles away was a body that had 5-6 billion people on it, all striving for the same thing in life... And I really thought about that for a while—and here was this body, and all around was space; I could see the moon below and sun behind, but here was this body and everything I knew was back there," Lovell said, reflecting back on the impactful moment in his career. "And I thought to myself God has given us a stage, God has given us a stage to perform, and how that play turns out is up to us.”