“Not because they are easy but because they are hard,” – words spoken by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, defining the mindset of the pilots who pioneered the first moon landing. In the 1960s and 70s, celestial navigation training for Apollo, Mercury, Gemini and Skylab missions was conducted under the starry dome of Morehead Planetarium.
As the space race escalated, a troop of young, fresh-faced astronauts with buzz cuts blended into the village of Chapel Hill, gathering on screened porches in orange flight suits from NASA. Images from this era feature a generation of astronauts including John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Alan Shepard, Buzz Aldrin, and
Neil Armstrong, who made history as the first man to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. Photo: Courtesy of the Carol CJ Jenzano Collection, copyright 2018. Left to right: Pete Conrad (Apollo 12), Elliott See (died in plane crash before any missions), Myrtle Jenzano (wife of Tony), Neil Armstrong.
Though Chapel Hill is centered near the middle of the state, its connection with the sky and sea was forged twenty years earlier when the university was commandeered as a training base for seaborne pilots. Astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter trained at identical V-5 Navy Pre-Flight bases during WWII, when pilots took the war to the ocean, taking off and landing on aircraft carriers.
During WWII Pre-Flight School cadets studied celestial navigation, aerology, and climatology in campus classrooms. On overnight hikes, survival guides taught cadets how to find their way home with the North Star.
Central to Pre-Flight School training was the likelihood of failure. As cadets tackled one of the most rigorous pilot training programs of their time, they gained the confidence to make the impossible—possible.
As a former naval combat officer, President Kennedy knew that America had to win the space race to set an example to the rest of the world. Though Kennedy’s “We chose to go to the Moon” speech was directed toward the future, I beleive he tipped his hat to the seaborne pilots who paved the way for the Space Race long ago:
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.”