Ten years after opening, Morehead Planetarium was called to serve not only the people of North Carolina but also the nation’s burgeoning space program. Astronauts needed training in celestial navigation to ensure they would be able to pilot their spacecraft if navigational systems failed. Between 1960 and 1975, nearly every astronaut who participated in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz programs trained at Morehead.
More than once, the training that astronauts received at Morehead saved lives. After automated navigational controls failed following a loss of electricity on the Mercury-Atlas 9 mission, Gordon Cooper had to use the stars to guide his reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. His splashdown eventually proved to be the most accurate in mission history.
When the rocket launching Apollo 12 into space was hit by lightning during take-off, astronauts had to reset their navigational equipment by sighting key stars.
The Apollo 13 mission is likely the most famous instance in which Morehead training proved critical for the space program. After an onboard explosion knocked out navigation systems, a resulting debris field also made it impossible for astronauts to accurately see the surrounding stars. When the debris cleared just before reentry, astronauts were finally able to verify that they were on the correct heading for their return.