The First Planetarium in the South

Astronaut Scott Carpenter prepares for his Project Mercury flight in 1962 as fellow Astronaut Walter Schirra and Planetarium instructor Dr. James Batten look on. Photo from the Morehead Planetarium

Astronaut Scott Carpenter prepares for his Project Mercury flight in 1962 as fellow Astronaut Walter Schirra and Planetarium instructor Dr. James Batten look on. Photo from the Morehead Planetarium

On May 10, 1949, the Morehead Planetarium opened on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. It was first planetarium in the South, the first planetarium on a university campus and the sixth planetarium to be built nationwide.

The planetarium was primarily a gift of John Motley Morehead III, an 1891 graduate and founder of Union Carbide Corporation. Construction took 17 months and cost $3 million, making the building the most expensive in the state at the time. It was supervised by Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapely and designed by the architects who worked on the Jefferson Memorial.

From the late 1950s to the late 1970s, the planetarium became a hub of NASA’s astronaut training program. The facility was used primarily to help astronauts learn to navigate by the stars in case computerized navigation systems failed. The program ended largely because of advances in the technology of those navigation systems.

In 1973, the planetarium added an observatory with a telescope managed by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, and, in 1984, it became one of the first planetariums in the nation to use computer animation in its shows.

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