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.

Charlie Duke with Space Hipsters on February 22, 2019

Charlie Duke’s Return to Chapel Hill

 

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(Photos Courtesy of UNC Wilson Library’s Durham Herald-Sun Photographic Collection)

From 1968 to 1972, humans repeatedly went to the Moon, venturing there nine times and landing on it successfully six times.  In practical terms, it means that 2018 to 2022 is a period of celebration and reflection for all of us as we look back fifty years to that powerful period of our human development. For space enthusiasts right now, there are hundreds of celebrations to attend, meet and greet photo opportunities with astronauts to seek out, documentaries to watch at film festivals (or via Netflix), and dozens of new books to read.

For one of these fifty-year celebrations, Brigadier General Charlie Duke—one of twenty-four men to travel to the Moon and one of twelve who walked on its surface—made his return to Chapel Hill, North Carolina on February 22, 2019.

Apollo 16 astronaut Duke regaled an audience of hundreds with his tales of astronaut training, some of which took place at UNC’s Morehead Planetarium, plus his adventures helping other astronauts get to the Moon, and then finally walking on its surface himself. It was surreal and otherworldly, listening to one of four living moon-walkers speak with humility about never thinking he would be picked from his peers to make one of these grand voyages.

The video that Charlie Duke live-narrated showed him comically attempting to fight against his bulky spacesuit to pick up a moon rock and, after several attempts, triumphantly catching it off an accidental toss only to realize he’d dropped the sample bag that it was to go into. He discussed a few of the scientific experiments he and John Young placed so that scientists back on Earth could learn more about the Moon’s history and physical structure.

Duke showed Young driving an electric car, the lunar rover, on the surface of the Moon and showed what the ride looked like for them using footage gathered by a rover-mounted camera. The rover kicked up quite a bit of moon dust that fell eerily back to the surface. The absence of air to interfere with dust falling highlighted the otherworldliness as that dust refused to make small clouds or puff out in a breeze that simply wasn’t there.

Duke brought us back to Earth as he quipped, “If you ever want a million dollar car with a dead battery, I can tell you where to find it.”

He recalled being Capcom during Apollo 11’s landing in 1969. As chief communicator for Mission Control, his voice was heard by over a billion people as he spoke with Neil Armstrong during and after that landing. Duke said that in spite of the tension of those most-watched minutes of any Apollo flight, it was gratifying that all his friends and neighbors from the Carolinas were happy he was doing a lot of the talking. Duke recounted, “They told me, ‘I only understood the parts when you were talking.’ I guess it was because of my southern accent.”

As one of Charlie Duke’s assistants for his recent visit, I not only heard his talk but also had the good fortune to drive him and his wife, Dotty Duke (UNC ’62), to and from the venue. I stood nearby and took photos of him warmly engaging with people during a meet and greet. I was able to listen in during his small press conference.

By the end of the evening, what struck me was not that he was an amazing hero who took big risks to help our country pioneer a new frontier. While that is certainly true, what struck me was his genuine attempt at connection with me—with anyone he met that evening—and the love for his fellow human beings that was evident in each interaction.

Out of over 100 billion people who have ever lived or the 7.6 billion currently living, only twenty-four people have ever gone to the Moon and only twelve walked upon it. If anyone could brag, be arrogant, or act like an angel who has just come here for a visit, it’s these men. They’ve literally touched the Moon. Charlie Duke, however, speaks of his time on the Moon with words like “an honor” and “humbling.”

Perhaps it is because he went to the Moon that we admire him. His warmth, humility, and love of his neighbors is, however, an even better reason to do so.

General Duke, thanks to you and Mrs. Duke for the visit. Come back soon!

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Tonight at the Frontier

Update: See the replay here: https://video.unctv.org/video/rtp-180-outer-space-michael-neece-5xtrqn/

Tune in to stream my five-minute version of what happened when astronauts came to Chapel Hill.

Stream it (starting at 6 PM): http://www.ncchannel.org/stream/

(photo courtesy of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center archives)

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.

Spacefest

Image above: Eclipse party 2017 with Meteor Mike.

In July, I plan to attend Spacefest IX, a celebration of astronauts, mission controllers, scientists, space novelists, science journalists, and all stripes of space enthusiasm and enthusiasts. This being my first time, I’m excited at the chance to meet so many of like mind, people who live and breathe the future of humanity by celebrating our spacefaring spirit. I can’t wait to meet the Poor family, the ones who pull off this monumental gathering and carry on the legacy of Kim Poor, the visionary who created this event nearly a decade ago – a man I wish I could have met.

I look forward to talks by: Emily Carney, a witty and wise writer who guides modern space culture and provides a guiding light for other writers to chase; Dwight Steven-Boniecki, who will be premiering his film Searching For Skylab: NASA’s Forgotten Triumph, a presentation that’s guaranteed to leave us all with chills, from everything I’ve heard; and, Phil Plait, a man whose Bad Astronomy writings have guided a generation of planetarians and space educators, myself included.

I cannot wait to immerse myself in the artwork, the foundation of this festival, to see what inspires and fits within my budget (and my plane’s overhead bin). I envision a new painting in my office, perhaps of an alien landscape, spacecraft, or astronauts hovering before diamond stars scattered across a velvety black backdrop. Such a painting could pull five thousand words from me each day, I’m sure, if I could find exactly the right one.

Of course, the reason for Googling “cool space gatherings” a year ago was the search for those who are of my tribe, but particularly, those who can tell me tales of astronauts coming to my home town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Hearing tales during the Apollo speakers panel, at the banquet, during the luncheon, and over drinks at the cocktail party–I cannot wait for these. It seems a priceless gift hearing from the astronauts who once trained under the Morehead Planetarium dome where I now present the heavens to grade-school future astronauts.

And yet in July, I expect to receive this amazing gift on my birthday, in fact! And all thanks to those with vision. Those who created Spacefest. Thank you, Poor family. Meeting you might be the best part of the trip.

So, who’s up for a space adventure? Meteor Mike is ready if you are!

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