“It is the birthright of every child, to encounter the Cosmos anew.” — Carl Sagan, ‘Cosmos’ (1980)
“5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 … Liftoff! We have liftoff of Max the Dog, the first dog to visit the International Space Station!”
Although these words weren’t part of Orbital Sciences chief engineer Mike Dorsch’s live coverage of his company’s recently launched resupply mission to the International Space Station, they will nevertheless be voiced from astronauts onboard the orbiting complex.
Orbital Sciences Corp. is one of the two private companies contracted by NASA to regularly resupply the ISS. As reported here on AmericaSpace by Ben Evans, the triumphant launch of the company’s Antares rocket on Jan. 9 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia was followed by the successful docking on Jan. 12 of its payload, the automated Cygnus cargo ship, to the Earth-facing port of the Station’s Harmony module.
Cygnus delivered a payload of 2,780 pounds (1,260 kg) on its first contracted mission to the ISS, mostly comprised of spare parts and supplies for the astronauts and a whole set of new and exciting science experiments, ranging from Ants in Space to drug-resistant bacterial studies to Cubesats capability demonstrations. Yet it’s not only science riding on Cygnus’ flight to the orbiting research lab. As reported on the collectSPACE website, of perhaps even greater importance is a new educational program called “Story Time From Space.”
The program is the brainchild of science and math educator Patricia Tribe and NASA astronaut Alvin Drew. Together they conceived the idea of having astronauts in space videotape themselves, while reading science education books for children and conducting simple demonstrations for better comprehension of the science being presented in the stories. The videos would then be downlinked to Earth and stored on online libraries for access by elementary school teachers and parents.
To help implement this idea the team contacted astrophysicist and author Jeffrey Bennett in October 2010. They were impressed by the author’s work on his award-winning large-format picture Science Adventures with Max the Dog book series, named after the astrophysicist’s real-life dog, Max. “My goal would be for the book to connect with kids on three levels: education, perspective and inspiration.” Bennett would later write for the Astronomy Society of the Pacific’s “Astronomy Beat” monthly on-line column, concerning the first book in the series, “Max Goes To The Moon.” “The education piece is the science content, the perspective piece involves seeing ourselves and our planet in a new light, and the inspiration piece comes in trying to get kids to dream of how much better the world could be, if we all work together.”
The goal of educating young children about science through engaging and fun stories resonated well with Tribe and Drew, who would choose Bennett’s entire children book series for their educational program. When the Space Shuttle Discovery launched on its 39th and last mission, STS-133, in 24 February 2011, Drew, as a member of the crew, took some time off his mission specialist duties to read a digital copy version of Max’s fictional lunar adventures to children on Earth.
Video Credit: NASA/Big Kid Science
Contrary to the electronic version of Bennett’s book used on STS-133, Cygnus carries onboard the whole collection of the author’s children books series, in their hardcover versions. Prior to reading the first three titles detailing Max’s adventures on the Moon, Mars, and Jupiter respectively, the crew of Expedition 38 will make history by reading “Max Goes To The Space Station,” the first book in physical form ever to be read in space, and a new addition to the “Story Time from Space” series, penned by Bennett to commemorate the real-life International Space Station. “The crew members will be videotaped opening up the big hardcovers,” commented Patrick O’Neill, CASIS’s communications manager, during an interview with collectSPACE, “and it’ll be just like when you’re in kindergarten or first grade and the teacher has the hardcover book to read in front of you.” CASIS—short for the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, the non-profit organisation responsible for managing the U.S. Orbital segment of the International Space Station—worked with Tribe and Drew to have the physical copies of the book launched there.
Awe and wonder are key elements of a proper and effective education for children. By presenting science as something fun, often through engaging stories, maximizes the chances of having young children develop scientific literacy, and an appreciation and love for science. “30 years ago, [children’s book’s] left a lot to be desired,” writes Bennett. “With few exceptions, the available science books for elementary-age children, were either riddled with scientific errors or written in a very dry style (or both). I thought that it should be possible to have children’s science books that would have a plot and be fully accurate.”
As a young boy growing up in Greece, I fell in love with space exploration and the Universe through gripping and engaging science fiction storytelling—on TV and in print form. I still remember a certain science fiction children book series published during the 1980s, detailing the deep-space adventures of a group of youngsters on the Moon, Titan, and Uranus. These stories were packed with the scientific results and discoveries from the Voyager flybys of the outer planets that were ongoing at the time, stoking the fires of my imagination and helping to fan the flames of my passion with space, a passion that remains to this day. “What you cannot imagine, you cannot do,” says Drew. “When the Apollo missions blasted off and went to the moon, I was right there with those crews – landing lunar modules and cantering along on the surface of the moon. ‘Story Time From Space’ is intended to ignite children’s engines of adventure, imagination and curiosity and to let those engines take them to any place and time of their choosing.”
Bennett recognises education as key to the future as well.“The problems we face today are very different from those we faced 40 years ago”, he wrote in 2009, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. “The key to the solutions, however, remains the same, just as it has remained the same throughout history: We need to believe in ourselves, and to inspire and educate our children, so that we can rise above our current problems and build a better future.”
By helping even a small percentage of young children to dream about this future, Bennett’s books will have served their purpose. “The world belongs to the dreamer,” writes therapist and lecturer Dino Delano in his book “Discover the Magic In You,” “for the dreamer is doing much more than just fantasising – the fantasy backed by desire and action becomes a reality.”
The “Story Time From Space” book series aims to inspire children everywhere to dream of the stars. For looking up at those stars is looking at their future.
And this future isn’t just a work of fiction.