Morehead Planetarium and Science Center’s new additions aim to educate and entertain visitors of all ages
By Hannah McClellan | Photography by Mick Schulte
Donning a black puffer vest covered in stars, 3-year-old Avia Attucks dances in the astronaut mirror featured in Morehead Planetarium and Science Center’s new Apollo 11 exhibit.
“Mommy, look!” she says, twirling to the sound of space music with her sister, Aspyn Attucks, 2, as their parents, Antwan Attucks and Samantha Attucks look on and laugh.
They aren’t old enough to read the exhibit’s signs yet, but they seem to grasp its message as they pose in the mirror cutout of an astronaut’s helmet — one day, they could explore space, too.
“This is sort of like the next generation of astronauts,” says Malenia Swinton, the planetarium’s marketing and communications manager, as she gestures to the mirror. “So you can see yourself as an astronaut.”
The Apollo 11 exhibit is just one addition included in the more than 5,000 square feet of exhibit space added to the planetarium last year – part of a major $9.2 million renovation project designed to create a more accessible and meaningful experience for visitors.
“We nearly tripled our exhibit space,” says Exhibit Manager Lizz Alfano. “Where we would only have one or two exhibits at a time previously, we now have 13 – it’s pretty awesome.”
Accessibility codes weren’t yet written when the building was built in 1949, so a big priority was to “bring it up into the 21st century,” Lizz says, by adding a fully functioning elevator and ramps on every floor. Project leaders also hoped to explore other sciences in addition to astronomy — emphasizing the planetarium’s 2002 name change to include “science center.”
“Pretty much every space got touched by renovations, some more than others,” Lizz says.
Upstairs, the Gateway Gallery explores the Morehead family’s history in NASA, and the Science Stage features live demonstrations. Downstairs, the Fulldome Theater displays the planetarium’s well-known astronomy shows, and next door, the Breakthrough Hub houses many of the new exhibits featuring research done at UNC, exploring subjects ranging from fungus to prosthetics and everything in between.
“We’ve gotten a lot of positive responses,” Lizz says of the updated planetarium. “From a lot of people who may not have seen it, they’re just thankful that we’re open and have something for them to do. For the people who had seen it before, everyone is just blown away by how drastically we’ve changed the building.”
The planetarium began construction in May 2019, opening off and on under a limited capacity since the Fulldome Theater opened in June 2019.
“But then March  happened,” says Director Todd Boyette, adding that, though construction finished earlier that month, the planetarium shut down completely at that point for exhibit installation and to create COVID-19 safety protocols.
The planetarium finally reopened its doors to the public last November. Though the event was highly anticipated, Todd says it was also a bit lackluster.
“We would have had a big celebration if we weren’t facing a pandemic – we opened under the radar,” he says. “It was very understated. We just opened, and it was not at all what we wanted.”
Still, he’s proud of the way his team handled reopening in a pandemic. They’re currently operating at 18% occupancy, he says, allowing 40 guests to buy tickets for two-hour time slots Friday through Sunday. Though after-school programs are currently canceled, planetarium staff are working to potentially add an additional day of the week for group tours.
With those capacity limits, weekend reservation attendance is down 30%-60% compared to last year, the planetarium’s Reservations Manager Richard Watt says. Still, Lizz and Todd say they’re pleased with the high attendance under the circumstances.
“We are getting close to selling out every show at this point,” Lizz says.
Only the hands-on learning Launch Lab and retail shop remain closed, but Lizz says several exhibits in the Breakthrough Hub will have additional interactive elements whenever it’s safe for them to be added.
“In a post-COVID planetarium, we’re just excited to have our full vision up and running,” she says. “We’re just going to stay patient, and we know that 2021 will bring our vision.”
Reopening a completely new facility during a pandemic came with a lot of nerves and challenges, but Todd says it was all worth it.
“I’m pleased and impressed with how resilient we are,” Todd adds, “and with how so many people are pulling for us – people are delighted that we’re open.”
Positive visitor surveys help, too, he says, adding that currently 100% of visitors who responded said they were satisfied with safety protocols and 94% were satisfied with their Morehead experience.
For Antwan, who visited the planetarium for the first time with his family in December, the kid-friendly and interactive nature of the exhibits convinced him to visit again soon.
And if he had any doubts, Avia and Aspyn’s requests as soon as they got back in the car sealed the deal.
“When can we go again?” they asked. “I want to go again!”