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New entrance, more exhibits, big changes ahead for Morehead Planetarium

Posted April 6
Updated April 7

Once the $5.2 million project is complete in late 2018 or early 2019, the public will have access to five times the amount of floor and exhibit space in the building on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill.

Morehead Planetarium and Science Center is on track for a major makeover that will overhaul exhibit space and reshape the way visitors enter, exit and experience the Chapel Hill destination.

Once the $5.2 million project is complete in late 2018 or early 2019, the public will have access to five times the amount of floor and exhibit space in the building on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. Already, money has been raised for about 75 percent of the project's total cost.

"We have a vision to be a global leader in university-based science centers," said Todd Boyette, Morehead's director, at a fundraising event attended by Gov. Roy Cooper Thursday evening.

In 1949, when Morehead opened, it was the first planetarium in the south and the sixth in the United States. It once served as a training center for U.S. astronauts preparing for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, including the astronauts who walked on the Moon.

More recently, Morehead, with its 68-foot planetarium dome, has become a go-to destination for field trips on site and science programs across the state. Nearly 160,000 people visit the science center each year, including 85,000 school children. Across North Carolina, it reaches 600,000 residents with programs that include free summer science classes for kids and the two-week N.C. Science Festival, which opens Friday.

Boyette said the project will update and improve the current facility and make for a better experience for Morehead's many visitors. "They deserve to enter in a grand entrance from the front and not the side," Boyette said Thursday.

The project will streamline the visitor experience, shifting the entrance, adding more exhibit space and ensuring it's accessible to all. Here's what's planned:

The main entrance will move to the building's west end, facing McCorkle Place. Guests will then move through the exhibit space, into the planetarium dome and exit through the existing gift shop.

A modern, reconfigured lobby space will greet visitors at the new entrance. There, they'll be able to buy planetarium show tickets (which also will be available for purchase online).

The building's rotunda will turn into an exhibit space that will pay tribute to UNC's history as a pioneer of science exploration and its collaboration with NASA. Here, Morehead will move up some of its NASA-related exhibit, which now sit along the dark hallway near the bathrooms.

New exhibits for the rotunda also are planned, including more details about what astronauts learned during their time at Morehead. For instance, lessons learned at Morehead helped save the lives of the crews aboard Apollo 12 and Apollo 13. "That's a story that wasn't being told," said Jay Heinz, Morehead's director of creative and experiential design.

An interactive "maker space" that's part exhibit and part program will take over an existing classroom space that sits off of the rotunda. The space will be available for afterschool and summer programs and open to the public.

The science demonstration stage, in its current location off the rotunda and across from the new maker space, also will get an update. The stage is home to Morehead's regular Science Live programs.

The current lower exhibit hall will be expanded to showcase advances that UNC researchers are making in science, health and technology. The space will feature five topics, including current research on concussions, wearable robotics and mosquito-borne disease. One topic will rotate out every year. So, after five years, the space will be completely new.

From the exhibit space, visitors will enter the planetarium, which will get new seats, carpet and paint. The gift shop also will get an overhaul. Plans also include updating the rose garden with the sundial in front of the building so it can be used for programs and classes.

Heinz said the redesign will offer a more cohesive experience for visitors.

"Before, it felt like everything was shoehorned into the building," he said. "We wanted to make it feel like a science center."

No solid date has been set for construction to start, but Heinz said the planetarium should remain open throughout the project on its regular schedule.

Officials have been talking about making changes to the building for 14 years. Planning and design began in earnest about two years ago.

Said Heinz: "It's finally coming to fruition."

More information about the #TakeUpSpace campaign is on Morehead's website and in this YouTube video.

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