Marianne J. Dyson

Review of Exploring Space with an Astronaut

Reviewed by: Marianne Dyson, February 29, 2004

I must admit a bias right up front: I was the science consultant for this book. This means I fact-checked the text before it went to print, and was paid a small honorarium. My name appears on the credits page, and I'm quoted on the back cover. I do not earn any money from sales of this book.

Exploring Space focuses on a shuttle mission commanded by Eileen Collins. Each section answers a basic question, such as 'What is an astronaut?' and 'Why do astronauts go into space?' using examples and photos mostly from that mission. An activity to observe the night sky, with an emphasis on the moon, is included at the end.

Because I checked all the facts, I can say that this book gets everything right! I especially like the activity to get kids to observe how the sky changes during a month. I wish more adults would look up and enjoy the sky once in a while!

Being a purist, I must complain about the statement on page 18 saying that the astronauts were studying "life without gravity." What they are really studying is life in freefall or life in weightlessness. However, the term freefall is not introduced, and weightlessness is difficult to explain, so the editor decided not to change it. I can't really blame her because even though I don't like it, everyone, including the astronauts, continue to call space "zero g" and talk about how things behave "without gravity." There IS gravity in space - otherwise the moon would not be held in orbit. The astronauts are weightless because they are falling, not because there isn't any gravity. I've asked the teacher-in-space, Barbara Morgan, to address this problem when she flies. Maybe she can convince the astronauts to change this unfortunate and inaccurate terminology!

Also, there is one misleading photo caption (It's not my fault! I wasn't asked to fact-check photo captions!) The image on page 16 is labeled "a black hole," and of course, black holes cannot be seen! Most likely this is an image of matter falling into a suspected black hole.

Overall, the photos selected, especially the cover, are excellent. They do a great job of illustrating the text with one exception: the caption on page 18 points to a plant experiment, but no plants are visible. I suspect this photo was chosen because it is from Collins' mission. However, I would have picked something that was easier for kids to understand. Also, I think kids should know who the astronauts are in the photos, and this information is not included. For example, Kalpana Chawla, who was one of the astronauts killed in the Columbia explosion, is on page 11. It would have been especially appropriate to include her name because the book is dedicated to the Columbia crew.

I give this book two points for accuracy, a half point for clarity (because of the "without gravity" term), one for using current data, one for readability, and a half for useful illustrations (because of the "black hole" and lack of names). Total: 5 points. Recommended. As I said on the back of the book, "This engaging and fact-filled book will launch kids on an adventure into space with a real astronaut crew."

Title: Exploring Space With an Astronaut
Author: Patricia Murphy
Illustrator: N/A (uses NASA photos)
Ages: 6-8
Number of Pages: 24
Format: hardback, library binding
Publisher: Enslow
Date: April 2004
Retail Price: $16.95
ISBN: 0-76602268-4

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