Sunday, February 10, 2008

Field Trip to the Moon

As a JPL Solar System Ambassador (volunteer informal educator), I occasionally receive educational materials from JPL (usually DVD's and CD-ROM's) that I can use in preparing or presenting educational events. I just received one called "Field Trip to the Moon" (FTM), which was actually produced by the American Museum of Natural History with support from NASA. It uses a future Moon mission in NASA's Constellation program as a framework for introducing some basic ideas of spaceflight and of the Earth-Moon system.

I just watched the 20 minute narrated film, and my first reaction was that they could have made better use of the NASA visuals for the Constellation program, many of which are quite good (see multimedia features here). There's an extended simulation of the Ares V being rolled from the VAB to the launch pad, and there are some shots of the Orion (crew exploration vehicle) and the Altair (the new name for the lunar lander). I was also less than impressed with the narration, which seemed to lack focus as it first gave a tour of Earth surface features, then talked about satellites in general, then the Earth's magnetosphere, cosmic rays, and finally some facts about the Moon itself. There's a simulation of a landing at Taurus-Littrow, but they don't use any external views of the spacecraft's approach, so it doesn't especially feel like a landing.

Then I reviewed the accompanying web site and realize that it's partly a matter of perspective. This is a science enrichment presentation for grades 3 and up that is normally done in the planetarium dome at AMNH in New York City with a live narrator. As with all planetarium shows, the narration must assume a general audience of various ages and with typically little background in space subjects. I also realized that I was comparing the visuals to my own experience with Orbiter - and Orbiter is definitely better, though of course also more complex to use. And while Orbiter is focused on simulating spaceflight with accurate physics and good 3D visuals, FTM is really using a future return to the Moon as a framework for introducing various science topics. Combined with the student and educator guides (PDF's on the web site), it seems pretty good for this, though I still think the visuals could have done a better job at making it feel something like a space flight while still meeting the science coverage goals. Teachers can contact AMNH to get a free DVD for classroom use.

Orbiter is also a lot more "do it yourself" than a video, but if you are up for it, there are great Moon simulation and exploration resources available, including AMSO for re-creating Apollo missions, and several add-ons for simulating the Constellation program, though some of them are works-in-progress (as is the Constellation program). Some discussion here, Francis Drake's Constellation spacecraft here (this zip seems to be the latest version, shown in my screen shot), and Antonio Maia's Ares I here.


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