Space Exploration and the Value of a Good Teacher

We just finished watching From the Earth to the Moon, the mini-series devoted to the US space program in the 1960s. It traces the entirety of the effort to get people to the moon. Produced by Tom Hanks, with many known actors in the roles, it’s a great production, and one I highly recommend. Great stuff.

Two things stood out to me during this rewatch. The first is how clear it was that the only thing that motivated the politicians to make this huge push to get to the moon was the competition with Russia. That’s obviously not the reason for everyone, but it’s how so much money was magically found in the budget to support the endeavor. That’s easy to see, since it’s now fifty years later, and we’ve never been back. Yes, there’s talk of sending people to Mars now, and we have the international space station, but that huge laser focus on getting people to the moon is gone.

Some of that might be because since we’ve already been there, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to go back. Some of it is because the space station is so successful. What can be done on the moon that can’t be done on the space station? Some of it is because our government has gotten out of the business of supporting space exploration, for the most part. Leaving it up to independent companies to foot the bill. It’s debatable what role government should play, but I’ll leave that argument for now. I had just often thought of the space program as one example of a time when we all worked together to get something great accomplished, and so I was a bit disappointed as I realized the motivations to do that great thing varied widely. “Beating the Russians” seems like one of the worst justifications for spending millions and millions of dollars. Though if we could somehow recreate that motivation for the right things . . .

The other takeaway was focused on the tremendous Episode Ten of the show. They’d already depicted the moon landing, and so you’d figure the best episodes were behind the series. But this one shows how they taught the astronauts to be knowledgeable field geologists. It’s one of my favorite in the series. They contrast the initial approach (sitting them down in a lecture room while an expert droned on about rocks) with the final approach (taking them out into the field, led by a professor passionate about the subject and teaching.)

It’s not always that cut and dried, but it made me remember the great teachers I had. The ones who could make you love a subject, even if you knew nothing about it at first. One of the main reasons I added linguistics as a second major was because of Professor Oaks at BYU. He did such an incredible job with Intro to Linguistics, that I just had to learn more. He made me realize how much I loved the subject. Sure, some of that’s probably because I was already naturally inclined to like it. Not everyone who took the class loved it. But still, in the hands of the right teacher, a subject can really come alive.

I almost think that episode should be required viewing in our teaching classes. It’s great as a standalone piece. You don’t need to know anything else about the space program. It looks like it’s freely available online. Give it a watch sometime, and check out the whole series when you can!


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