TCS Daily

Know Your Moon (and Solar System)

By Kenneth Silber - July 27, 2006 12:00 AM

Children have long been fascinated by space, but good children's books about space exploration and astronomy only show up once in a while. Two new books provide valuable guides to the celestial for kids of about 10 years of age and higher. Ten Worlds: Everything That Orbits the Sun, by Ken Croswell, is an informative overview of the solar system, albeit one that makes a debatable assertion about the number of planets. Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon, by Catherine Thimmesh, is an engaging account of the July 1969 leap to another world.

Ten Worlds provides a welter of facts about celestial bodies, coupled with spectacular imagery taken by space probes and telescopes. "I Eat Graham Crackers" is Croswell's suggestion for how to remember the order of orbits around Jupiter of its four largest moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Calisto, all of which were discovered by Galileo in 1610. Venus, the author notes, is bright enough to cast a shadow. Uranus is the only giant planet in the solar system that doesn't have a large moon. The south side of Mars is higher in altitude than the north side, Croswell observes, adding that nobody knows why.

The book accepts as "the tenth planet" an object that was discovered in early 2005 (from images taken in 2003) and which is known officially as 2003 UB313 (and unofficially as "Xena"). This object is larger than Pluto and has its own moon. However, as Croswell acknowledges, not all astronomers accept its status as a planet, or that of Pluto for that matter. The International Astronomical Union is expected to publish a formal definition of "planet" in September, determining how many objects in the solar system hold that status. At that point, the title of Ten Worlds will seem either prescient or awkward.

Team Moon provides numerous interesting details about the Apollo 11 mission, and is lavishly illustrated with photos relevant to that remarkable project. The narrative is built around a series of challenges that had to be overcome in the course of the mission. A particularly striking one of these is that the lunar module had barely enough fuel for a controlled landing -- as opposed to an aborted mission (returning to lunar orbit) or a disastrous crash. The Eagle touched down with 18 seconds to spare, rather than the several minutes predicted in simulations.

As Thimmesh points out, President Nixon never had to say the words secretly prepared for him by speechwriter William Safire: "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace."

A central theme of Team Moon is that a large number of people -- the 400,000 of the subtitle -- pooled their talents to make the mission happen. These included, for instance, the seamstresses of the spacesuits worn by the astronauts. The suits consisted of 22 layers of materials such as Mylar and neoprene-coated nylon that were stitched and glued together by a team at the company ILC Dover. Team members had a great deal of confidence in the extensively tested suits, but still felt pangs of worry when, as recalled by seamstress Eleanor Foracker, "the guys on the moon started jumping up and down."

Space (along with dinosaurs) is one of those subjects that kids need little prodding to learn about, and that can serve to spark broader interests in science and nature. Space is also an area that today's children increasingly may have opportunities to explore first-hand in the coming decades. A reader who is 10 today will be in his or her early 20s when NASA, under current plans, begins returning astronauts to the moon. Such a reader might live in a world that has sub-orbital space tourism flights while he or she is still in junior-high school. And possibly, today's 10-year-old could someday be a 30-something walking on Mars.

So, it's probably a good idea to do some early reading on what's out there.

Ken Silber is a TCS Daily columnist and writer focusing on science, economics, and politics.

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