What I want the children to learn from a unit on space.

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So we’re studying space, Building a model of an Apollo space ship.and I wonder, what is it I want the children to learn?

I want them to get a realistic picture of space travel. In 1957 people were thrilled and scared because the Russians had figured out how to launch a small beeping sphere into orbit. The dog launched into space a month or so later died of overheating during the first few hours but that information wasn’t released to the public until 2002. I have a library book out that was written before then and it  casually states that unfortunately the satellite wasn’t designed to be retrieved and the dog perished.

I want them to understand that the space program was created by asking one question after another and attempting to solve one problem after another. Progress is made step by step, bit by bit. First they had to figure out how to get something into orbit. Then they had to check if life could survive in orbit. They had to test and test again. They had to get to the point where a rocket could rendez-vous with something. Then get to the moon and back. Then land on the moon.

The book Neil, Buzz, and Mike Go to the Moon is a good one for giving a bit of that history of the steps it took to get to the moon. The book talks about the Mercury missions, Project Gemini, and the first Apollo mission. The book is written story-like for the most part but with side bars with extra information. It briefly mentions the disaster of Apollo one but doesn’t explain why it happened. (My kids learned that story elsewhere and are fascinated by the idea that the the space program didn’t know that the nitrogen in our atmosphere serves as a flame-retardant and they attempted to go with 100% oxygen instead of the nitrogen-oxygen mix we have here on Earth.) The book does mention that when the first astronauts returned from the moon they were put in quarantine for fear they might be bringing back “moon germs.” We used that as a chance to talk about the requirements of life for most bacteria and viruses as well as about how what we know has changed so much since that time.

The Make it Work: Space book has vague instructions for how to make a model of an Apollo spacecraft. We didn’t have cardboard tubing but made almost the whole thing out of cardpaper and tape. The best thing about making it was it gave us a chance to explore the stages in which the spaceship breaks apart and it introduced us to the launch escape system which we then had to look up.

The IMAX movie Destiny In Space was available at the library so we borrowed it and started watching it. It is a good movie to watch after reading about the steps it took to get to the moon, because the movie looks at what steps will it take to be able to go further. How could we produce the artificial gravity that would be necessary to sustain muscle mass on a long journey? How does NASA test materials for use in space?

Really, what I want my children to take away from this is the idea that it takes time and effort to create something new. I want them to appreciate the work that gets put into things. I want them to recognize that what seems like impossible problems at one point might not be at another point. I want them to think about larger problems in terms of lots of smaller challenges to solve.

Now I’m thinking I’d like to shift directions a little bit with what we do next week. I want to continue to read about space but to focus more on the natural world outside our atmosphere and less on human technology. I want to talk about eclipses, seasons and constellations. I want to start looking at some of the math involved. To the extent that we do continue talking about human technology, I want to put the whole space race in the context of the Cold War.

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