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Morehead Planetarium and Science Center begins its 75th anniversary celebration

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By CHRISTOPHER KATELLA

CHAPEL HILL, NC (Jan. 22, 2024) — Today, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center begins a year-long celebration of its 75th anniversary. Since its dedication on May 10, 1949, as the first planetarium in the Southern United States and the first worldwide on a university campus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, generations of planetarium visitors and program participants have sparked their curiosity through Morehead.

“2024 is going to be a spectacular year at Morehead,” said Todd Boyette, director of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.

Today, Morehead is launching a webpage to celebrate its 75th anniversary, featuring a dynamic timeline that showcases the important people, programs, and milestones that have made up Morehead’s history. Visitors can also learn about upcoming events, a recently launched crowdfunding campaign to raise $75,000, and even share their own ‘Morehead Memories’ through an online form.

In addition to the website, Morehead’s social media accounts will feature new and exciting content related to the anniversary. This will include special anniversary wishes from well-known figures, glimpses into the history of Morehead through a look into its vault, and much more.

Boyette mentioned that the anniversary is another great opportunity to welcome back visitors to Morehead who may have not visited since the building’s renovation project in 2019 and 2020. “While we are excited to celebrate this important achievement in Morehead’s history, we’re even more excited about the opportunity to welcome back the generations who grew up with us, whether they are longtime supporters or haven’t been to the building since visiting on a field trip in their youth,” said Boyette.

‘Mega weekend’ and campus exhibits

Although anniversary events are scheduled throughout the year, Morehead is preparing for one of the biggest celebrations in its history in just a few months. From April 6-8, 2024, Morehead will celebrate its anniversary with a three-day ‘mega weekend’ event filled with engaging and exciting activities.

This year’s UNC Science Expo, to be held on Saturday, April 6, will be larger than ever before as the greater community comes together to celebrate Morehead’s anniversary and shed light on scientific research taking place at UNC-Chapel Hill. A signature event of Morehead’s North Carolina Science Festival, attendees can expect a range of hands-on activities and science demonstrations led by STEM students, researchers, and practitioners from UNC-Chapel Hill.

Spot, an agile mobile robot from Boston Dynamics wows the crowd Morehead Planetarium and Science Center as part of UNC Science Expo, Saturday, April 9, 2022.

Former student and staff employees of Morehead are invited to a Reunion Weekend celebration with fellow alumni on April 6-7, in Chapel Hill. The reunion will include a cocktail mixer at Still Life, a family and friends’ lunch in the State Dining Room, and a private planetarium show in the fulldome theater. Registration for Reunion Weekend is scheduled to open later in January 2024.

The celebration culminates on Monday, April 8, with a total solar eclipse watch party. Weather permitting, outdoor sun-viewing stations will be set up to observe the partial eclipse, as Morehead’s location in Chapel Hill is outside the path of totality. Science educators will be available to assist with eclipse viewing, and eclipse glasses are now available for purchase at Cosmic Goods.

A similar eclipse watch party at Morehead in 2017 brought thousands to the grounds around the building, a memory Boyette singles out as one of his favorite moments in his nearly two-decade term as director.

“From celebrating the largest Science Expo in the event’s history, to welcoming back old colleagues and friends, to experiencing a solar eclipse, April is shaping up to be an exciting and special time here at Morehead,” said Boyette.

Beyond April’s celebration, visitors to Chapel Hill can now view an exhibit at Wilson Library’s North Carolina Collection Gallery showcasing the history of Morehead through its renowned Zeiss projector systems. Once a commanding presence in the center of the fulldome theater, the last Zeiss was retired in 2011 when Morehead completed an upgrade to a fully digital projection system. Another 75th-inspired exhibit will be installed at the UNC Visitors Center on E. Franklin St. later this month.

‘A milestone as a cornerstone’

Millions of curious minds have explored the wonders of science and the cosmos through Morehead’s fulldome theater, exhibits, and live science demonstrations since 1949.

One of Morehead’s proudest achievements occurred between 1960 and 1975 when 62 NASA astronauts — including many of those who walked on the moon during the Apollo program — trained in celestial navigation under the guidance of then-director Tony Jenzano. The lessons learned by astronauts at Morehead were later used to save missions and crew members’ lives, including during the final Project Mercury flight, MA-9, and both Apollo 12 and 13.

Throughout the years, Morehead has played an integral role in helping public audiences make sense of an ever-changing scientific landscape. When Voyager 1 and 2 departed Earth to explore the outer Solar System in the 1970s and 80s, for example, Morehead staff held informational sessions sharing the latest images and findings from planets such as Jupiter and Saturn.

A group of school students in front of the Zeiss projector at Morehead Planetarium.
A group of school students in front of the Zeiss projector at Morehead Planetarium.

Today, Morehead programs reach far beyond Chapel Hill and impact the lives of thousands of North Carolinians each year — including the statewide North Carolina Science Festival, partnerships with schools and community groups reaching underserved communities, the annual Science for All Summit, and popular educational outreach initiatives including Carolina Science Cafe for adults and the Mobile Planetarium for children, among others.

For Boyette, the anniversary serves as a time of reflection and a cornerstone for the next 75 years and beyond. “As we look back on our history of providing STEM educational opportunities for the people of North Carolina, we are increasingly excited about the future,” said Boyette. “Morehead and its staff remain dedicated to our ongoing mission of promoting equitable and inclusive science education, to inspire and educate others in ever more meaningful ways.”