When Planetariums Save Lives

Seth Jarvis

Exactly 50 years ago today, the education an astronaut received in a planetarium saved his life.

On May 16, 1963, Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper, the last American to travel alone into space, experienced a total failure in his spacecraft’s navigational computer and automatic flight controls during the Mercury-Atlas 9 mission, the last of the Project Mercury missions.

Mercury Astronaut Gordon Cooper and the Mercury-Atlas 9

With his navigation and attitude control computer inoperative, Cooper had to use guide stars to manually align his spacecraft for the correct orientation with the atmosphere during his re-entry. If he got the angle of his spacecraft relative to Earth wrong by even a couple of degrees he would burn up when his spacecraft encountered Earth’s atmosphere. At 17,000 miles per hour there is no room for error.

Colonel Cooper’s knowledge of constellations and star positions allowed him to manually guide his spacecraft exactly into the middle of the awaiting recovery fleet, making his landing the most accurate of all the Mercury missions.

How was Cooper able to navigate so precisely? Because he, and every astronaut in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo projects, were trained in celestial navigation by sitting inside a mock-up “command module” that had been installed in the center of the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The planetarium director there, Anthony Jenzano, taught the astronauts to identify constellations and the names and locations of dozens of bright stars that could be used for orientation and navigation as viewed from the tiny windows in their spacecraft.

Astronauts training in the Morehead Planetarium

When astronaut training transferred from Florida to Texas and NASA told the astronauts they intended to relocate celestial navigation training to Houston, the astronauts refused, insisting that their training in the Morehead Planetarium was vital.

Other astronauts have had to use their planetarium training in celestial navigation to guide their spacecraft when automated systems were inoperative, including Apollo 12 and most famously Apollo 13.

History is full of examples of how people have used astronomical knowledge to make crucial navigational decisions that saved lives and changed the course of history. Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of those moments when what a person learned by studying the stars saved a life and made history.

“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…” – John Masefield


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