Standing On The Planets
One year my son got only an average grade in school because his middle-school project on the solar system did not adequately separate the planets to scale. In the big scheme of his life-long career, who the hell cares? But in terms of a children’s science project, how can it even be possible to create a three-dimensional presentation of the planets in a way that includes the distance ratios, as well as the size ratios, and in a style that makes it possible to transport such a display to school? It’s not. Please stop making kids do this kind of nonsense. Require creative, fun ways to approximate these distances, for example, if the distance between Mercury and the sun were equal to one average-length banana, calculate how many bananas it would be to Neptune (it’s a little more than 90 bananas, by the way), but not require the student to produce said bananas.
On an outing to Houston, my sons and I visit a science museum. On the ground in the courtyard, these measurements between planets are adequately spaced to represent the distances, with the correct ratios, from the sun to Pluto, as Pluto did still have planet billing at the time. For photographic purposes, Son #1 stood on the sun, represented by just a sliver of the full circle to add the correct star-to-planet ratios, and Son #2 stood on Pluto. The distance was so great, Son #2 cried when I stepped a few steps away from him to get a photo of the distance. To think teachers expect students to squeeze this kind of display into the back of my SUV in the name of science.
On the way home, we stop at the Stennis Space Center, and despite our earlier encounter with the perspective on the planets, boys love space stuff. They’d already been to Kennedy Space Center, but who doesn’t want more space? (Yes, there’s two ways to read that, and yes, I prefer the other way, too.) Granted, they probably would have loved to hear the rockets being tested, but on a scale of space exhibits from one being the UFO Museum in Roswell (see Not Area 51 from November 2021) to ten being the time we see the rings of Saturn through a telescope (see Astronomer’s Inn from May 2013), Stennis might be a six. Again, a solid nine if the engines were being tested, but hardly worth an encore, even for that.
And yet, life has a way of bringing me back to places, sometimes more than seventeen years later. I know I cannot make it to Austin from Orlando in a single day, so I plan to drive in the rental truck as far as I can until the desire for sleep becomes the determining factor. I realize somewhere after Gulfport, I don’t want to enter Louisiana and sleep in a rental truck, for a myriad of reasons, so I settle for the last rest stop in Mississippi. As I near within a mile, when the blue signs announce the concession services and the brown signs list the recreational sites worth seeing, I discover I am back on the doorstep of the Stennis Space Center. It’s late at night, so I won’t be exploring. It’s late in November, so it’s a touch chilly, but still southern enough for me to grab a pillow and blanket and nod off inside my yellow truck. This time, grateful the engines are not being tested.