Program Report: Todd Boyette – The Morehead Planetarium

Without doubt, the Morehead Planetarium on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus is a treasured travel destination for tens of thousands of visitors every year.   About fifty percent of the 160,000 annual visitors are school children.

Introduced by Rotarian Julie Rigby of the Museum of Life and Science, Morehead director Todd Boyette gave a little background to the history of the planetarium and brought us up to date on current programs and pending developments.  A Garner native, Todd has been planetarium director for twelve years.  Incidentally, Tom Krakauer was on the search committee that hired Todd. Also a guest of the Club was Omar Bell, the Development Director of the Planetarium.

The planetarium that opened in 1949 was the gift of John Motley Morehead III, a UNC graduate who discovered acetylene gas and a new way to produce calcium carbide—leading ultimately to the founding of Union Carbide. When looking for a suitable gift for his alma mater, Morehead learned that Harvard’s Harlow Shapley—the leading astronomer of the day—had pronounced North Carolinians as the “most astronomically ignorant people” in the country, Morehead determined to remedy that.  The result was the first planetarium in the South, only the sixth in the country, and the only one in the world located on a university campus.

Visitors could marvel at the heavens projected onto the dome by an analog Zeiss projector.  The launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 led to a new program—training NASA astronauts in celestial navigation.  Between 1959 and 1975 almost all astronauts trained at the Morehead Planetarium.  According to Jim Hansen, my former Auburn colleague and biographer of the first astronaut to set foot on the moon, none of those early astronauts “spent more time studying the stars at Morehead” than Neil Armstrong.

Reflecting a significant change in mission, in 2002 the planetarium was renamed Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.  Its mission is to be a contemporary, comprehensive center enabling “an improved public understanding of science, technology and health.” The creation of a joint UNC-NCSU graduate program in Biomedical Engineering has contributed to a health sciences component of STEM outreach education.

 

Much of the outreach focus is to provide educational opportunities for school children.  Not only do students make school trips to the planetarium, but planetarium staff, UNC faculty and other experts take lab experiences and classroom presentations to schools throughout North Carolina.

Probably Morehead’s most ambitious undertaking since astronaut training has been the 2010 creation of the North Carolina Science Festival in collaboration with hundreds of partners.    It is the first statewide science fair in the country and largest in the world.

A major renovation project is just around the corner that includes relocating the entrance to face McCorkle Place, remaking the lobby, and providing more exhibit space.

Submitted by Allen Cronenberg        

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