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.

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)

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.

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!

Photograph of Col. Cage, Scott Carpenter (in a Link trainer), Wally Schirra, and Morehead astronaut trainer James Batten. Photo courtesy of UNC Photographic Lab via Wilson Library digital collection.

Astronauts Came to Morehead for 15 Years

Photograph above: Col. Cage, Scott Carpenter (in a Link trainer), Wally Schirra, and Morehead astronaut trainer James Batten. Photo courtesy of UNC Photographic Lab via Wilson Library digital collection.

After NASA astronaut training had been going on for a handful of years at Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill, the Manned Spacecraft Center became the hub of activity for astronauts, thus they spent far less time in Langley, VA and much more time in Houston, TX. Morehead was more remote for the astronauts from then on. So why keep the training at Morehead for another dozen years? Why not just shift celestial navigation and stellar identification training to another facility in Houston?

Find out more when my book comes out next year!

And for all you Tar Heel fans out there, President Bill Friday in the mix:

Tony Jenzano (Morehead director), Gus Grissom (Mercury 7 astronaut), Bill Friday (UNC President), Deke Slayton (Mercury 7 astronaut), James Batten (Morehead astronaut trainer), and Jim Wadsworth (Morehead astronaut trainer). Sheet Film 19213, 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.
Tony Jenzano (Morehead director), Gus Grissom (Mercury 7 astronaut), Bill Friday (UNC President), Deke Slayton (Mercury 7 astronaut), James Batten (Morehead astronaut trainer), and Jim Wadsworth (Morehead astronaut trainer). Sheet Film 19213, 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.
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