Growing up with astronauts: the story of Carol Jenzano

Author Michael G. Neece tells the story of Carol Jenzano, whose youth was spent frequently in the company of the most famous astronauts who ever lived.

Myrtle Jenzano pictured with, from left: Pete Conrad, Elliot See and Neil Armstrong. Credit: Carol Jenzano.

In June of 1965 in the small town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 18-year-old Carol Jenzano answered her front door to find astronaut Pete Conrad grinning at her. She walked him to the kitchen where she had been cooking dinner with her parents, Tony and Myrtle.

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Conrad’s grin widened. “I called everybody I knew and they all told me to go to hell, so I decided to come here early.” Conrad nodded toward their activity. “What’s for dinner?”

Jenzano’s father, Tony Jenzano, was the director of Morehead Planetarium where he oversaw NASA’s celestial navigation training programme. Astronauts quietly slipped into town whenever they needed planetarium training, usually with little notice.

Since the Jenzano family had entertained Alan Shepard, John Glenn and the rest of the Mercury Seven astronauts when Carol Jenzano was a young teen, Conrad’s arrival was enjoyable, but routine.

Few kids – at least those not related to an astronaut – could expect space explorers to step off the cover of Life Magazine and into their homes on a regular basis.

Morehead Planetarium at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. Credit: Yeungb / wiki
Morehead Planetarium at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. Credit: Yeungb / wiki

Jenzano recalls of the astronauts when they visited: “They were very relaxed, and charming, and they had fun at the house.”

She particularly liked Pete Conrad’s broad and showy brand of humour that made laughs roll through the night whenever he showed up. “I was always excited when Pete Conrad came to town because he was the most personable of all of the astronauts.”

Jenzano’s father had a strict policy to protect astronauts from journalists and autograph-seekers. He asked planetarium staff never to reveal when astronauts were staying in town, not even to other staff.

Over the years, it helped these space voyagers see this small village in the American South as a safe haven away from the obligations of fame. It was only after the astronauts had gone that the planetarium publicist would release the names of the visiting astronauts and information about the training.

Even Carol stayed tight-lipped. “My father said, ‘You can’t tell anybody…then pictures would come out in the paper and my friends would complain, ‘You didn’t tell me!'”

Left to right: 2) Myrtle Jenzano (facing away), Tony Jenzano, Jr., Carol Jenzano, a neighbour, Pete Conrad (Apollo 12). Credit: Carol Jenzano
Left to right: Myrtle Jenzano (facing away), Tony Jenzano, Jr., Carol Jenzano, a neighbour, Pete Conrad (Apollo 12). Credit: Carol Jenzano

During this particular training trip, Conrad stopped by for a second evening of home-cooking followed by unhurried, late-evening conversation on the front porch.

Jenzano knew that more astronauts would be arriving that evening. One was a particular favourite of hers: “an innocent crush,” she calls it. When her mom took a phone call in the kitchen, she silently followed from the porch. Little did she know that the mischievous Pete Conrad had noticed and was close behind.

When Jenzano asked “Mom, was that Neil?” – meaning Neil Armstrong – her mother replied “Yes, he’ll be here soon.” A half-beat later, Pete Conrad’s voice bellowed from behind, “Oh! So that’s how it is!”

So much for the crush staying secret!

When Elliot See and Neil Armstrong arrived on the porch an hour later, Conrad said “Hey, Neil! Good to see you. Why don’t you come sit over here next to Carol?”

Jenzano recalls her father being quite the host, but says “Mom was the life of the party.” She remembers Armstrong’s comment that night: “We just flew in, put our things at the motel, and then homed in on the raucous laughter.” Jenzano confides: “He meant my mom’s.”

Left to right: 3) Tony Jenzano, Mike Collins (Apollo 11), Carol Jenzano, John Young (Apollo 10 & Apollo 16). Credit: Carol Jenzano
Left to right: Tony Jenzano, Mike Collins (Apollo 11), Carol Jenzano, John Young (Apollo 10 & Apollo 16). Credit: Carol Jenzano

Tony Jenzano and his team of trainers at Morehead provided star identification training to 62 astronauts for all Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions from 1960 to 1975.

Every mission required use of that training for astronauts to guarantee proper alignment of each spacecraft, for without it, spaceships and crews would fly off into space or burn up on the way home.

After school, Carol Jenzano occasionally snuck into the darkened star theatre where astronauts were training. “I was amazed and stunned by their quick memory,” she says.

In her home, she met at least 40 astronauts during those first 7 years, but wasn’t around after that. “I had moved into an education career, teaching and creating or overseeing special education programs.”

Gemini V command pilot Gordon Cooper (right) and pilot Pete Conrad following the successful recovery of their spacecraft from the ocean, 29 August 1965. Credit: NASA
Gemini V command pilot Gordon Cooper (right) and pilot Pete Conrad (left) following the successful recovery of their spacecraft from the ocean, 29 August 1965. Credit: NASA

NASA considered moving the celestial navigation training in 1964, after just 4 years at Morehead, to a newer planetarium closer to the astronauts’ homes; however, Morehead retained the programme, and for all the right reasons: its seasoned staff, advanced equipment, and a history of conducting the training.

Carol Jenzano speculates that a key factor that kept the astronauts coming back was her family’s welcoming nature. Myrtle Jenzano said it neatly in a 1962 interview: “They became so much a part of our family while they were here.”

What are Jenzano’s thoughts about growing up with these famous space uncles? “They were unique and intelligent, clever and adventurous, and a little bit dangerous. It kind of oozed off of them, you know what I mean?”

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We can only imagine, Carol, but thanks for helping us try.

Michael G. Neece is the author of Tony Jenzano, Astronaut Trainer, published by The University of North Carolina Press.

Tony Jenzano: Astronaut Trainer, by Michael G. Neece