I was watching Firefly with six year old Patch snuggled up next to me. He loves to watch the space ships. Some of the other stuff in the show was a little scary to him, so I paused the show to explain how it is all pretend. He turned wide eyes to me in disbelief and said “You mean space ships aren’t real?!”
It was like someone had taken away Christmas. I had to explain to him that we do have real space ships, but that they don’t look like the ones in movies. So we googled some pictures of the space shuttle and I told him about it. I told him what I knew about space shuttles and how they work. I told him how my dad dragged us kids out of bed at four in the morning so we could watch space shuttle launches on live television. I told him about watching the space shuttles land at much more convenient west coast hours. I told about the time that the space shuttle was transported via plane over our house and I watched it fly by. I remember what an amazing miracle it was to have a space ship that could be used more than once.
My stories convinced Patch that all was not lost in the space ship department. I wanted to give him more to be excited about, so I went to netflix to find documentaries about space. The documentaries arrived only to disappoint. They were nostalgic and historical. There were images of space ships, but most of the screen time was old guys talking. These documentaries did nothing to make my son excited about real space ships.
This makes me sad, because the fact that human beings travel into space is a miracle. It has become one of those routine miracles that few people pay any attention to. We entertain ourselves with fantastical visions of futures filled with flying cars and space ships when high above us people are orbiting beyond the reach of gravity. If we want our future to include amazingly cool space ships, we need to be making kids excited about space. I wondered at the lack of documentaries explaining to kids what space exploration has done and why it is cool. I wondered at the lack of a Carl Sagan or a Bill Nye or an Adam from the myth Mythbusters to make space science accessible to kids.
Lacking an exciting documentary, I took matters into my own hands. Today we had a family outing to the Hill Air Force Base Aerospace Museum. This museum is devoted primarily to airplanes rather than space ships, but it is worth the trip. We got to walk right up next to hundreds of historical aircraft. The one Kiki loved was the 1948 era plane of the kind used by the “candy bomber” who dropped packages of candy to children during the Berlin airlift. Gleek was creeped out by the mock up of the first atom bomb. It was truly creepy looking even before reading the plaque. Patch was delighted by the whole experience. He would have been happy to wander for hours just looking at the airplanes. But the true joy of the trip for him was the hands on exhibit where he got to climb into a bomber cockpit simulator and play with all the switches. If he’d grinned any wider, his face would have split.
I was once again amazed at the marvel of airplane engineering. I was a little saddened that so much of it is devoted to ever better ways to commit violence. I think that is why the portions devoted to space travel were my favorite. Space ships are all about making sure that no one gets killed. I mused on all of this as I sat waiting for the kids to be ready to leave the hands-on exhibit area. Then I noticed that in the waiting area there was a video playing. It was taking the viewer step by step through a space shuttle launch and doing so interestingly. I asked one of the docents and she told me that the video was The Big Space Shuttle. I have now added that to our Christmas list. It is more similar to How It’s Made than to Bill Nye The Science Guy, but it is much better than the documentaries I found before.
The outing was a success. Patch even acquired a little pewter airplane that he has been playing with all evening. He cornered me to tell me all about it, including the fact that the plane had a giant laser on its back which no one could see, but which could blow up anything.
I don’t know that any of my kids will become scientists or engineers. I don’t know that they will ever work in an industry related to space. But I do know that they will some day vote, and I want them to have some idea of the marvelous accomplishments which have come from the space program. It would be sad to have manned spaceflight come to an end merely because the voting public considers the miracle too routine to be worth funding.