In 2008, when I began submitting to publishers my children’s book on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, I got a number of rejections that basically said: We love the idea, love the writing, love the story, but we don’t think there will be interest in the market as the mission will be long over by the time the book comes out. Now, rejections are never fun to get, but these made me want to scream: This story is never over! This is the on-going story of our exploration of our solar system.
One of my beefs with the way science is often taught in school and presented in textbooks and even in many trade nonfiction children’s books is that science is portrayed as a category of facts that kids need to learn rather than an ongoing, ever-changing set of questions people have about the world around them.
That’s why I was SO pleased when my book The Mighty Mars Rovers: The incredible adventures of Spirit and Opportunitywas published as part of Houghton Mifflin’s Scientists in the Field series this June, just two months before the next Mars rover Curiosity was scheduled to land on the red planet.
There are so many connections between Spirit and Opportunity's and Curiosity’s missions that it’s nearly impossible to miss that Mars exploration is an on-going question, on-going story. Many of the same people have been involved in both missions, from the main subject of my book, Steve Squyres, the principal science investigator for Spirit and Opportunity who is also involved in the science of the new mission, to Pete Theisinger and Rob Manning, lead engineers on both missions, to Jennifer Trosper, a mission manager for both missions, and Joy Crisp, a project scientist for both missions. Watching mission control during the nail-biting landing of Curiosity was like re-living the landings of Spirit and Opportunity – the familiar faces, the tension, the worries, the hopes, the awe. (If you missed the landing, you’ve got to see this cool 3-minute video that melds footage from mission control and launch parties across the country with simulations of the landing process.)
There’s something else in the news these days that drives home the point that space exploration and science is an on-going quest. Astronaut Neil Armstrong died on August 25, 2012. The connection? Chapter one of The Mighty Mars Rovers opens on July 20, 1969, as a thirteen-year-old boy named Steve Squyres watched in wonder as the Apollo mission put people on the moon. In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did something (walking on the moon) that ultimately inspired a young boy to dream of sending rolling geologists to Mars. Steve Squyres and hundreds of thousands of other scientists and engineers safely landed Spirit and Opportunity on the red planet for a mission so successful that it essentially answered the question: Was there enough water on Mars to support life? (Yes!) With that question solidly answered, and with everything else we learned from Spirit and Opportunity’s mission, today, the next Mars rover Curiosity can focus on searching for other building blocks of life. THIS is science.
The Mighty Mars Rovers and many books written by my INK colleagues and others can be used to show kids that science is an on-going quest, an on-going story. With the help of the internet, readers can be guided to see the connections between a book they read on a science topic (The Mighty Mars Rovers) and what is happening in that field today. (Check NASA's website for the latest on Curiosity’s explorations of Mars, including other great videos.) Readers of The Mighty Mars Rovers who follow Curiosity’s current mission can’t help but notice many parallels and connections. Teacher can also encourage readers to make these connections by asking:
- How are the missions the same?
- How are they different?
- How has rover design, launch, and landing changed?
- What are the biggest challenges of the missions?
- How were they overcome?
- What questions are the missions designed to answer?
- What tools do the rovers and scientists have to answers those questions?
- And maybe most importantly: What questions might come next?
Discussion questions like these help students experience the connection between science books and what is happening in the field right now – and inspire readers to imagine science they may want to do – questions they might want to try to answer—when they grow up.
Oh, and one more thing. All those editors who rejected my book because of timing were wrong. Not just in a philosophical sense but in a literal sense. The mission I wrote about in The Mighty Mars Rovers is not over. Defying all expectations, Opportunity, expected to last a bit over three months in the harsh, frigid Martian environment, is STILL roving the red planet, sending back photos and information about our neighboring planet more than eight years later. That little rover is like the Indiana Jones of space exploration. You, your students, and your kids can catch up on Opportunity’s most recent discoveries and see new photos sent back from Mars anytime you want.
The story continues…
* A complete teachers’ guide to The Mighty Mars Rovers, including discussion questions and hands-on activities, can be downloaded for free here.
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