Morehead Planetarium publishes first book in decades, showcasing former director who trained NASA astronauts

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- For the first time in more than 50 years, the Morehead Planetarium is publishing a book!

It's a children's book about one of the earliest leaders of the planetarium: Tony Jenzano. Jenzano is the man who brought NASA astronauts to Chapel Hill; he trained 11 of the 12 men who have walked on the surface of the moon--including NASA legends Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell.

But Jenzano's story didn't start with NASA or astronauts. It started with a young, poor immigrant boy growing up in Philadelphia who was fascinated with electricity.

Click here to get your copy of the book.

It's those humble origins that inspired author Michael G. Neece to turn Jenzano's story into a book for children.

"I think it just captures the imagination for a kid to say, 'Hey he was a boy, maybe my age, and he didn't really have any real prospects; nobody really expected anything of him.' But boy he dove in, he found a place for himself, he followed a passion, and before you knew it he was saving the lives of astronauts by giving them really critical training."

WATCH: Neece explains why the story of Tony Jenzano makes for a great children's book
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Neece: This is why the story of Tony Jenzano makes for a great children's book



The book is also receiving praise from the author of the Magic Tree House series.

"This beautifully illustrated book by Michael G. Neece brilliantly captures a chapter in the history of the Morehead Planetarium. But it does so much more--it's a story of commitment, courage, learning and the imagination. The bonds formed between museum director Tony Jenzano, Morehead Planetarium, and an amazing roster of famous astronauts were profound and lasting, and played a major role in sending the first Americans into space, " author Mary Pope Osborne said.

The illustrations in the book were done by Raleigh native Benlin Alexander.

The book, 'Tony Jenzano, Astronaut Trainer: The Man Who Made the Stars Shine' is available at book stores starting Sept. 1. You can also buy it online at UNC Press, Amazon, and many other online book sellers.

The book will of course also be available at the Morehead Planetarium, but the planetarium is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When North Carolina moves into Phase 3, the planetarium and other museums will be allowed to reopen.

Current Morehead Planetarium Director Todd Boyette said the book is just one way the planetarium is still trying to accomplish its mission of inspiring people and improving the public understanding of science, technology and health despite the challenges of the pandemic.

"We have had to re-think everything we do, because Morehead is about bringing people together in all kinds of ways--usually physically together," Boyette said. "We do live skywatching at various places across the Triangle and we'll have more than 1,000 people show up. It's not cool to have 1,000 people show up in a crowd right now. We pile 200 people in a dome theater; it's not safe to put 200 people together in a theater. We are re-thinking all of those things."

This book represents a sort of re-thinking of how to engage the planetarium's audience.

"We published a book so that children can read with their families, with their teachers, you can have virtual book clubs, there are all kinds of things you can do and that is another way that we are connecting with our audience, and it absolutely makes sense," Boyette said.

WATCH: Neece explains what he hopes children will get from his book
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"I hope they get a lot of hope and a thought about their own great futures that lie in wait."



For Neece, the book is another way to spread the story of an underappreciated historical figure and hopefully inspire other children to look to the stars.

"If they get nothing else out of this book, I hope they get a lot of hope and a thought about their own great futures that lie in wait," Neece said.

In addition to publishing the book, Morehead Planetarium is getting a physical upgrade during the COVID-19 pandemic. The planetarium was scheduled to undergo renovations later this year. When the shutdown happened, those plans got moved up so the renovations could be completed without interrupting normal operations.

Boyette said he hopes to be able to reopen the newly updated facilities in October, "if the conditions are right for us to do that."

In the meantime, Boyette and Neece hope you'll consider supporting the planetarium by buying 'Tony Jenzano, Astronaut Trainer: The Man Who Made the Stars Shine.' Other ideas for supporting the planetarium can be found here.
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