Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Rocket ships, telescopes, and astronauts! My computer brings me NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day and Image of the Day. NASA's space program has been fascinating since I was a child. These days, it's interesting in more ways, and the information is much more accessible than it ever was. 

Mike Collins in a command module simulator on June 19, 1969 during a practice rendezvous
 and docking maneuver with the lunar module. Credits: NASA

Did you know that since it was founded, NASA makes heaps of learning materials available for free? Fifty years ago, there were only newspaper articles for me and my brother to read about the Apollo program. We watched the moon landings on our family's black-and-white television. Then in a science magazine we found the mailing address for NASA. In reply to our questions about astronauts, NASA sent us free pamphlets and posters and booklets. We sent blank videotapes and got back recordings about Mars and Venus probes. We were the space program experts at our school back then! 

That same feeling of “kid in a candy store” is what I get today at NASA's website at nasa.gov . It's wonderful to see the photos and videos of images from telescopes and from probes that visit other planets. Banners at the top of the screen organize links to many pages on different topics. When I wanted detailed articles to read on Curiosity Mars rover, it was easy to find information. Social media links are there, for daily updates from NASA on current events such as the Pluto fly-by. I even found podcasts and ebooks to download for my phone and tablet, and ringtone mp3s for my spouse to mix into Acid music loops! There is material of interest for people of every age or reading level, and particular attention is paid to teachers and students. For young children, there are NASA Space Place at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/ and NASA Kids Club.

This Jan. 19, 2016, self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle 
at "Namib Dune," where the rover's activities included scuffing into the dune with a wheel 
and scooping samples of sand for laboratory analysis.

I'll never forget watching the dawn sky from an isolated farm north of Edmonton as the space station went by, and feeling connected to the space program because I looked it up at https://spotthestation.nasa.gov . The information NASA gathers on Earth and in space is for everyone. International scientists study data and draw conclusions that are wide-reaching. Doctors in Canada's North use monitoring and communications systems originally developed for astronaut safety. Artists are inspired by images and ideas from programs that study the solar system and galaxies.

We may never know how many people are helped by NASA making this knowledge available. You can look at NASA's web pages on Benefits To You to get some idea of the impact. The weather data alone is priceless. As for my brother who made an astronaut costume for Hallowe'en, he grew up to test computer games and security programs, and edit Neo-opsis Magazine. I'm the author of over two dozen books on science for educational publishers. With my friends and colleagues I write for our blog Sci/Why which has a list of family-friendly science books you can find in the left-hand column on this page. Whenever someone says they want to know more about astronomy and the space program, I send them to NASA's website for all kinds of information.

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