Scouting the Moon

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One of my longer term goals during my space adventures has been to counsel the various scout merit badges relating to space exploration. A few years back I put together a Boy Scout Space Exploration merit badge session at the Frontiers of Flight museum at Love Field in Dallas. They routinely run Aviation merit badges there, and wanted to see if the Space Exploration one was doable. NSS of North Texas helped out with the last revision of the merit badge handbook, so it seemed like a logical fit for the chapter to counsel the badge.

It worked, but logistically it was very difficult to put together, and I haven’t taken a stab at another one. Recently though, we found out from the UTA Planetarium‘s Starry Messenger newsletter that the Planetarium would be hosting a session for various Girl Scout space badges. The chapter contacted them to see if we could help out, and they agreed to our assistance. As a consequence, instead of spending a day out on the links smacking a little white ball around the countryside for our annual corporate golf event, I spent the day inside running Brownies, Juniors and Cadets through the Moon-related requirements of the different badges. Since someone else was running the logistics it was a much easier experience in that regard, which doesn’t mean that over two score girls won’t run you ragged.

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After setting up the chapter’s space display in the atrium, it was time to run a large group of juniors through the phases of the Moon for their Sky Search badge. One thing to understand is that most grown-ups don’t understand the phases of the Moon. It’s not an intuitive thing (unless you’ve pondered it), and the fact that we’re on the surface of a rotating body messes up the perceptions. So I use lots of props and handouts.

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There are a number of basic principles that I tried to convey. We started out with the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, which traces out the plane of the Ecliptic. It is only when the Moon is in this plane that there is an eclipse, which is why it’s called the ecliptic. Why isn’t there an eclipse every month? Because the Moon’s orbit is not in the same plane as the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, but rather inclined to it. I then use the props to illustrate this in 3D. It’s also fun to set up a little ballet where one girl stays still as the Sun , another girl circles her as the Earth, while a third circles the Earth as the Moon. This helps to illustrate the delicate balance and also the complexity of orbital mechanics. We do an exercise to prove that the Moon rotates on its axis. Then I try to show why the Moon goes through a waxing crescent to waxing gibbous to full to waning gibbous and crescent to new Moon. This is the hardest part, and they either get it or they don’t.

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The next group was a pair of Brownies working for their Space Explorer Try-It. Since it was a much smaller group, the explanations were much easier, and there was more time for questions and interaction, but by the same token their personalities were much more starkly on display. The wandering butterfly was continually flitting off topic to attract attention to herself, much to the annoyance of the obviously brainier but much quieter girl. This brings about the difficult question of when to take control of the situation and write off the disinterested girl to focus on quenching the thirst for knowledge of the brainier one? [Correct sociological answer: you don’t, because doing so stunts the self-actualization potential of the disinterested one (at the expense of actual results with the brainier one), and with greater effort you may in fact be able to reach both of them (again, with less than optimal results for the one who would have most benefited from the opportunity)]

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After lunch was the cadets, and teaching them (a) how to design a Moon base, and (b) discussing the Pros and Cons of Space Exploration. This was conducted in the Physics Dept. Executive Conference Rooms, which I have to say were very, very nice facilities. I was able to quickly run through a powerpoint to give them some basics about the Moon, and then we got into the discussion. The idea of bringing plants and animals to the Moon certainly resonated with them, and it was fun running through the different animals that we might take. I had to put the nix on dogs, as it hasn’t been demonstrated that they would serve any particularly useful purpose for the consumables they would be using. They found this quite distressing, and of course they wanted to hear the sad, sad story of Laika. Horses would also be right out as they would just end up beaning themselves on the ceiling. Small animals like rabbits and guinea pigs are much more likely candidates, as they’re good to eat and reproduce quickly.

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We talked about power supplies and life support, communications and transport logistics. It might not have been quite what they anticipated, but it was certainly more than they could have expected. I was even able to tie one of my powerpoint slides to the penny-funnel they had been playing with down in the atrium as an example of how gravity wells worked.

The grown-ups were occupying themselves with looking through a number of the books I’d brought along from the Lunar Library as examples of the kinds of research materials about Moonbases that are available. The one the girls seemed most intrigued by were the braille books about the Moon, which I have to admit are pretty cool. One of the parents/leaders indicated her surprise at seeing so many Spanish-language books being available. I also showed some examples of modern fiction (non-Apollo-related, if you can believe it) that’s available, including the manga Planetes. Kids always get a kick out of explaining manga to the grown-ups, because it shows how much more sophsticated they are than the old fogeys.

Last up were the Pros and Cons of Space Exploration. We went through all of the usual suspects, but hopefully they left with a deeper understanding of the complexities of how priorities are set by society. Things like technology spinoffs played much more into this discussion, and luckily NASA’s Technology Transfer Office had recently sent me several boxes of materials, from spinoff coloring books (pdf) put out recently by Goddard Space Flight Center to copies of the annual Spinoff magazine. I was very careful to make the point that we don’t do space research to get spinoffs. We do space research to do space stuff. Spinoffs are unintended bonuses, where someone comes along and says “You know, that would be good for…” It shouldn’t be thought of as anything else, and by itself spinoffs are not a reason to do space research.

I played devil’s advocate to some extent while discussing the Pros so that the discussion wouldn’t be too lopsided. One young lady threatened to sidetrack the discussion into an exploration of global warming and the horrors of human environmental degradation, so I had to keep trying to circle the discussion back on topic and keep her from monopolizing the limited time we had. I find this is best done with humour and goodwill, as it’s hard to point out to someone that what they’re saying has nothing to do with the discussion at hand (or marginally at best) without hurting their feelings and potentially poisoning the discussion.

Things wound down after a while, and sugar levels dropped across the board, signaling an end to the proceedings.

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I thought only little boys were sophomoric enough to try to get away with rings around Uranus jokes (heh heh – Why is Star Trek’s Enterprise like toilet paper? ‘Cause they both circle Uranus looking for Klingons – heh heh), but there were plenty of little girls who were trying to work the potty humor as well. Quite a few misperceptions, such as one little girl who was convinced that Neil Armstrong never walked on the Moon, rather, we blew him up on the launch pad. She would not believe otherwise. A number of parents were thanking me and shaking my hand and noting that they were happy with the handouts and the presentation and everything. Everyone left just engorged with materials, especially the homeschoolers. I find it interesting that folks often think that homeschooled children lack social opportunities, and yet you see them taking full advantage of civic opportunities, like scouting, to ensure that they have interaction with their peers.

So now there are about fifty more Girl Scouts in the metroplex who have their Space Exploration badges than there used to be, and hopefully they’re a bit more knowledgeable about why space is important than they were before. I’d certainly chalk it up as a success, and I let the Planetarium staff know that I’d be more than happy to help out in the future. Amy at the Planetarium reports:

I want to thank everyone that showed up for the Girl Scout event on Saturday. It was a huge success and everyone had a great time. We had about 50 girls and their troop leaders visit throughout the day. Each girl went home having earned at least one badge, and a greater knowledge about Astronomy.

If you know something about space, you too can help out in your community. It’s not just scouts who need help with this space stuff. Look for opportunities and ask how you can help. It’s a good way to help cultivate the future.

2 thoughts on “Scouting the Moon

  1. Thanks for the interesting read and tips to great Scouting resources!

  2. Thanks for sharing your space expertise with the girls, and your experience with the scouts with your fellow space enthusiasts. You are an inspiration!

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