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The Arrival of Winter: Fly Me to the Moon

(From left: White, McDivitt, Jenzano, Borman, and Lovell in Astronaut Training at Morehead Planetarium, in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Image Collection Collection #P0004, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

BY MICHAEL G. NEECE (www.meteormike.space)

On the morning of December 21, 1968, three men who trained at Morehead Planetarium sat atop a Saturn V rocket, ready to become the first humans to travel to the Moon. Pictured above are two of those men on the far right standing with planetarium director, Tony Jenzano, in the center.

Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders (not pictured above, but who also trained at Morehead) made it around the Moon, saw its far side, and returned home safely on December 27, 1968. The astronauts could turn down the mission, being told that their odds of survival were about 50-50, but knowing how important the mission was to winning the Space Race against the Soviets, none of them did. Their Morehead training ensured that the astronauts knew star positions to use as guideposts to point the way home.

December 21, 2017 is forty-nine years after the launch of Apollo 8, but it is also the winter solstice marking the first day of winter.* The solstice is the day when sunrise and sunset positions stop creeping southward, hesitating for this one day, and start creeping northward toward spring.**

The solstice gives us the longest night and a season of long nights great for skywatching and storytelling under the stars. It also marks a time for planning a new year.  

This winter solstice, enjoy sunset a few minutes after five p.m. Look for the crescent Moon low in the direction of sunset. Imagine what it would have been like to share that first human voyage to the Moon, the one that happened only forty-nine winters ago.

* Those in the southern hemisphere will experience the summer solstice, the beginning of summer and the longest day of the year.

** Fall for those in the southern hemisphere.