I Write… Children’s Books?

One of the most surprising events this year has been my unexpected excitement about writing a children’s book called When Astronauts Came to Town. This desire overwhelmed my creative energy already committed to creating books for adults about this same Morehead Planetarium history.

It’s my kids who made it inevitable. Helping them grow up means a constant stream of items coming into and being removed from their bedrooms. Small toys like action figures and Lego kits usually give way to game consoles, field hockey gear, and musical instruments. Similarly, children’s books usually get pulled from shelves to make way for YA, sci-fi, and horror novels.

Pulling Clarence the Copycat from my daughter’s shelf, I found myself crying over the idea that we would lose it. As I secreted this precious story away in my office and wiped my face, I looked at all my planetarium research papers. And it hit me.

“Kids would really love learning about Tony Jenzano. He made stars glow in a huge domed room. He had astronauts over for dinner.” If my reaction to a children’s book about the copycat were any indication, other parents could find an emotional connection to my children’s book about Tony.

Early this year, I wrote and rewrote. After several drafts, I went to a workshop delivered by a deeply passionate soul, Susie Wilde. That session ignited my passion for telling this story even more. CJ Jenzano, an experienced educator and the daughter of my book’s central character, gave great suggestions and the book took better shape.

And in the past month, Morehead Planetarium agreed to publish the book with an illustrator of my choice. This week’s successful meeting with a brilliant illustrator, Benlin Alexander, has made the book seem even more real.

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Michael Neece with Benlin Alexander

Early next year, publisher Morehead Planetarium and Science Center and distributor UNC Press will push these books to Amazon and to a bookstore (and planetarium gift shop) near you! Details to follow soon, so stay tuned.

Oh, and if you were concerned, those other books about Morehead are still in process. Again, stay tuned.

Doubling Down on Writing

In order to have more time to focus on writing books about Morehead history, I have discontinued the documentary project for now. You who supported the documentary, I appreciate and deeply value your kind words, sage wisdom, and willingness to give financial support either on Kickstarter or on Indiegogo. If you pledged financial support, note that the finances were never pulled since Kickstarter has an “all or nothing” policy and the campaign did not reach the “all” mark and Indiegogo was cancelled well before it concluded. (If you find this to be in error, please contact me immediately at mgneece@gmail.com.)

Clearly, my research efforts and the book projects continue! For your support on that central effort, you again have my sincere appreciation. These efforts will culminate soon in a research trip: I’m going to Spacefest in Tucson, AZ in July. At Spacefest, I will meet with several Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and shuttle astronauts, plus space journalists and science documentarians.

Meanwhile, I continue to interview astronaut trainers’ families, former Morehead staff, and many others affiliated with Chapel Hill history and Morehead Planetarium & Science Center.

Again, for all you have done to support me in these projects, I appreciate your support and enthusiasm. I look forward to more conversations regarding this amazing history I am uncovering with your help. If you have any suggestions, questions, or stories of your own to share about Morehead, please contact me! I’d love to hear from you.

Catch the replay and tell your friends! Livestream from Chapel Hill: Why this Story Matters

Michael G. Neece broadcasted live from his home in Chapel Hill tonight, telling why North Carolina Skies: Tales of Astronauts in Chapel Hill matters in today’s world, and took questions.

Questions were asked (see answers below).


Alyssa asked how the Apollo astronauts were trained. The 37 guidance and navigation stars that were required knowledge for all of the later astronauts (Mercury astronauts had to know 57!), those were identified repeatedly during their trainings. They looked through a simulated port/window that restricted their field of view to just 60 degrees and they would have to align 2 or 3 stars exactly within that field of view, identifying them by name, and then type in those stars and positions into the guidance computers when they were actually on a mission. When there were rendezvous considerations or course-correction burns, they’d also have to train for those specifically knowing in advance of ever going on the mission itself so that it would already be familiar and easy to conjure up the knowledge.

If you have any other questions, feel free to contact me at info@michaelgneece.com.

Michael G. Neece Speaks tonight at UNCW (with Livestream)

At 7:15 PM (ET) in tonight’s address to the Cape Fear Astronomical Society on the campus of UNCW, writer Michael G. Neece will share the origins of the astronaut training program at Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill plus insider stories of astronaut visits.
Map: https://goo.gl/maps/7nGRa85USKk (Parking lots C and D should allow for anytime parking on weekends and both are immediately adjacent to DeLoach Hall.)

Live stream: https://goo.gl/3TsDPZ

Sheet Film 24023: Morehead Planetarium: Tony Jenzano, Major Gordon Cooper, Commander Alan Shepherd, Dr. Jocelyn Gill, Dr. Franklin Roach, William Huch, 6 April 1963: Scan 1, in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Photographic Laboratory Collection #P0031, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Unsung Heroes get to Sing out

In writing a book about astronauts coming to Chapel Hill, would be easy to overlook contributions of some hidden heroes, like Dr. Jocelyn Gill (fourth figure from the left in the photo above, between Gordon Cooper and Alan Shepard).

With her experience at MIT and her PhD from Yale in 1959, Dr. Gill became the Chief of In-flight Sciences for the Gemini missions in the mid-1960s. She visited Morehead Planetarium on several occasions in order to help astronauts and astronaut trainers integrate training with science goals for various missions.

Want to know more about Jocelyn Gill? Look out for my forthcoming book!

l to r: Mike Collins (Apollo 11), Myrtle "Jay" Jenzano, and John Young (Apollo 16) in the Jenzano living room, ca. 1964. Image courtesy of Carol Jenzano, copyright 2018.

Astronauts in her Home

In 1949, when Myrtle Jenzano found out she would be living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, she was willing to give it a try. Her husband, Tony, reassured her that they could leave after a few years if she hated it…an eventuality that never came.

Like Tony, Myrtle was born and raised in Philadelphia, a city that (like most cities) has a very small number of cows. From her new home in North Carolina, however, Myrtle could look out a window to see cows chewing cud in a nearby field. The noise of crickets at night, however, was the most unexpected and alien thing about her new town.

Most townsfolk had a hard time spelling Jenzano, so eventually Myrtle suggested everyone simply call her “Mrs. J,” and that became “Jay” over time.

Over the years, Tony and Myrtle-now-Jay adopted southern traditions – raising kids to say “sir” and “ma’am,” addressing strangers as neighbors and neighbors as dear friends.

Eleven years later, when Tony (who was the director of Morehead Planetarium) started inviting astronauts over for dinner, Jay was entertaining these national heroes in her home like a quintessential southerner. She served tea and lemonade, sometimes something a bit stronger, home-cooked meals, and good-natured, joyous fun times.

Jay was the life of any party and everyone loved the Jenzanos especially because of Jay. She treated her guests as dear friends. Tony was no slacker at exuding kindness and charm, but while everyone remembered his smile, no one could ever forget Jay’s hearty laugh.

The Jenzanos enriched Chapel Hill as they intertwined their kindness, warmth, hard work, and brilliance with the town. Almost seventy years after their arrival, many of their descendants still live here and their good deeds persist mostly in the form of the legacy at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.

But what about Jay’s stories? And the stories of astronaut dinners? What about Christmas card exchanges, social visits, and friendships with astronauts that spanned decades?

Don’t let these hidden stories fade. Help us bring Jay’s and Tony’s memories where they belong – back into the light and onto the Big Screen.

Join us in our efforts to bring these stories to to life in our documentary! https://vimeo.com/264234688

NASA press conference with New Nine astronauts and NASA officials in 1963. Photo courtesy of UNC Photographic Laboratories and Morehead Planetarium and Science Center Archives.

Speaking Engagements

Last month, I moderated a panel with Jim Horn, a technical visionary who worked at Morehead Planetarium for thirty years, and Don Hall, first Assistant Director of Morehead Planetarium and man who trained more than fifty astronauts at our facility.

I have been invited recently to speak to two astronomy groups in North Carolina about Tony Jenzano impact as thirty-year director at Morehead Planetarium. The first is the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society (CHAOS) in February. The second is the Cape Fear Astronomical Society with the date likely to be in April or May. I am honored by these invitations.

The picture above clearly is not me speaking – it’s Tony Jenzano addressing the press while standing alongside the New Nine and NASA officials during a press conference at Morehead Planetarium in 1963. Photo courtesy of UNC North Carolina Digital Collection.