Deeper Impact

By Phil Plait | July 5, 2005 9:31 pm

Note 1: This entry is featured in the 32nd Tangled Bank science blog carnival.

Note2 : I suppose you can think of this as third in a series of Deep Impact posts. It may be the last one for a while, but this mission has made me do a lot of thinking, so I reserve the right to keep writing!

I get a lot of questions from people asking why we should fund space travel. There are lots of answers to that, including the obvious (to me, at least) points about how our lives are much, much better due to the exploration of space (think for a moment what things would be like right now without satellite technology; tech that was developed by– surprise– the space program), what we’ve learned about the Universe, what we’ve learned about the Sun and how it affects us (directly and hugely, including causing power outages during solar eruptions), what we’ve learned about Earth’s climate from simply going up and looking back down… and the list goes on.

But there is also a deeper impact. A much deeper one, a profound one.

It may not be universal in all humans, but exploration is a survival trait. When the climate changed, got colder, early humans who got up off their butts and went traveling, looked around corners, set off for new ground– they survived. Ones who sat tight and tried to wait it out probably didn’t do so well. Standing on our tiptoes and looking over an obstacle is, in a very real sense, what makes us human. Space travel is an extension of that. What greater obstacles than the Earth’s gravity, the vacuum of space?

But there’s something else, too. Space travel inspires us. When it’s understood, when it’s comprehended, when it’s internalized, it propels us to new heights both literally and figuratively. It makes us better people.

It certainly made a group of school kids in Minnesota better people. Their teacher, Dee McLellan, was inspired by Deep Impact. She thought about how much copper was used in the impactor which hit the comet, and wondered how many pennies it would take to make that much weight. She told her 7th grade Earth science class this, and they made it a project: collect as many pennies as they could to equal that weight.

And they made it! They got 300 pounds of pennies, the actual weight of the copper in the impactor. But it’s the next part that really inspires me: they sent the money they collected to their sister school in the Ukraine, where money is even tighter than it is in our own US school system.

The kids worked hard, and they did good. Inspired by the space program, they helped children they’ve never even met. Even though they’re just starting to explore science and space, they were able to make a difference, and they made it clear across the planet.

… but you know, this planet seems a whole lot smaller when humans send ships across the solar system, just so we can peek around a corner and see what’s there.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Piece of mind

Comments (27)

  1. Stuart

    Well put Phil.

    What a cool idea it was to link the Deep Impact mission in such a direct and exciting way to an Earth science and maths class. Congratulations to the kids at Meadow Creek School for raising so much. Inspiring!

  2. Pietro

    Kids require proper guidance to develop critical thinking. More teachers should be inspired by such great achievements and follow Dee McLellan example.

  3. I will echo Stuart. That was an inspiring story. My Lab is twinned with a High School for teaching science. if I can come up with an idea one teenth as inspiring I’ll be chuffed

  4. Michelle Rochon

    Great kids!! Congrats to them! They’re really something. Very inspiring. :)

  5. Neb

    Very nice! I wish more teachers were this creative…


  6. VisionEngineer

    One reason for space exploration is simply the survival of our species. We know that life on this planet has been nearly wiped out several times in the past. It will almost certainly happen again. This is of course very long term, but if we are to survive for geologic time scales we have to move off of this planet and spread out to other worlds. I don’t expect this to motivate people to support space exploration simply because the time scale is so long. But there are so many immediate benefits of space exploration that should be considered. I wish NASA would do a better job promoting the benefits of the space program. People like us that take an interest in it know all about the benefits, but most of the people I meet don’t think twice about it. There are so many things that we take for granted that are products of our space program.

  7. Irishman

    Not to detract from the creativity of the event or the generosity, but most (U.S.) pennies are not copper. They are zinc with a copper shell. Zinc has a lower density than copper (specific gravity of 7.14 instead of 8.93), which means each penny weighs a bit less than an equivalent volume of pure copper.

    Of course that gives a more generous donation in the end, since it takes more pennies to reach 300 lbs than it would if they were pure copper.

  8. Didn’t we get velcro from the space program? i can find atleast 4 object with it on/in. Without leaving my half of the room!

  9. Roy Batty

    Even with pure copper at around $1.6/lb, its still generous.. 😉

  10. Roy Batty

    Velcro was invented some years before, but it was used in the space program!
    I sometimes think i’m velcro’d to my chair..

  11. Peptron

    I know that modern diapers are a result of the space program. They found a type of foam that is very absorbant and used it in space suits. They now use it in diapers too.

    I’ll try to find it again… I’ve once saw a list of things that are taken for granted but were in fact developped during the space program… Diapers are a nice one. Satellites too, but that one is kind of obvious.

  12. KyleCarm

    Hey we got that most important of lubricants, Water displacement formula 40, aka WD-40. As I recall Lockheed knew that the company they contracted to produce it had a winner when their employees kept taking it home.

  13. JusANuttaBackYahdah

    the kids with the pennies make me think they understand about paying it forward….what we should all do as well as looking forward….wonder what all those folks talking on their cell phones would think if they realized that this necessity probably would not exist without all those past “fools” who did just that… always great entry BA!

  14. Sam

    Yeah, I’d like to see a list of the technologies and things that are a direct result of the space program.

  15. CR

    This relates to the other thread (Part 2, I guess it could be called)…
    Perhaps Brian May should stop ridiculing the Deep Impact project (and by extension, NASA) and see what this class has done.

  16. Samara

    Stories like this give me more hope for the future of mankind…I wonder if we could make something like this a national movement. I mean, everyone must have some pennies laying around. The only problem is what is a worthy cause to give the money to…

  17. Very uplifting today, especially with all the bad news coming in from London.

    Love the blog Phil. Keep it up!

  18. JA

    Hi Phil!

    I´m surprised because I didn´t see yet any critics about the movie “WAR OF THE WORLDS” on your excellent site “Bad Astronomy”.


  19. I don’t think the detractors are really against the space program as such. They just don’t quite agree with the prioritising. If funding could be diverted elsewhere (healthcare and medical research seems to be the biggest calls) maybe it would do more good?

    Then again I am not the person to talk about priorities; earlier today I refused to donate $20 to save a little starving child. Instead I spent it on a round of beer.

  20. Irishman

    Given the dollar amounts already being spent on healthcare and medical research, do you really think the fraction of that that is Space spending would come close to making a difference? Sure, $30 million dollars sounds like a lot until you realize it is miniscule compared to the Billions of dollars being spent on health care and research.

    Whereas, taking a small portion of the budget and spending it on space provides other benefits now, things that are achievable.

    If we waited until we solved all the health care problems (for instance) before spending anything on space (or other perceived unnecessary pure science research), we’d never get around to space. We could spend the next 2 centuries and still not get around to space. Oh look at that pretty asteroid *smack*.

  21. Citizen Of Trantor

    Re: velcro & copper pennies

    Wikipedia, folks. Know it. Love it. Use it.

  22. Nigel Depledge

    Wow, I had no idea that billions of dollars were spent on medical research! My time in the UK’s university system led me to believe that life-sciences were funded to the order of hundreds of millions, spread very thinly. And most of that was on applied, rather than fundamental, research.

    Oh, wait. I just read that comment again. It was billions spent on medical research plus healthcare. OK, I get it now. Although I was under the impression that space exploration was extraordinarily expensive and also consumes billions of dollars. I think both are worthwhile, for different reasons.

  23. JusANuttaBackYahdah

    I know I probably shouldn’t post this cause i like to be light-hearted here….but….just once in my lifetime i’d like to see one year’s worth of money that’s devoted towards war go to something peaceful….hell not even the money….maybe just the wasted effort of hate redirected towards the future……going deep here… but… any one of us who reads this blog on a regular basis is looking up and you not only see but understand what we see really is bigger than what we are….let’s learn a lesson from the pennies and do something…contribute something to the future…gonna stop preaching now….sorry but i had to…..

  24. Robert Carnegie

    Does the new War Of The Worlds even have astronomy? I think the nasties just fall out of the sky in bolts of lightning.

    I’m not sure there’s much wrong astronomy in the novel either – I trust the discussion of orbits pre-Einstein is reasonable – except for Mars’s canals and the theory of planetary formation; the solar system formed by cooling and coalescing outer edge first and inside last, so Mars is older, smarter, and meaner than we are. On the other hand, they also consider it a good idea to travel in what appears to be a huge gun firing inert metal shells. This would leave a thin layer of Martian jam at the rear of the shell at take-off, and then the jam would splat into the nose of the shell when they landed. And the jam would probably be mouldy by then anyway, the time they take… wait, they don’t have – . But this isn’t astronomy and it was good enough for Jules Verne. Of course Wells’s narrator isn’t a scientist, so he may be misinterpreting the evidence. Maybe the shells are plated in Cavorite.

    Someone said that if the new movie aliens regularly invade planets, then they should have expected the problems that they face here. Maybe they usually invade planets more developed than ours, that – like their own – have eliminated those problems.

    Copper in money… in Britain our pocket change now uses steel coloured brown because I guess copper is too expensive.

  25. MaDeR

    “What greater obstacles than the Earth’s gravity, the vacuum of space?”
    I know obstacle greater than anything else: boundaries of our universe… 😉

  26. Fred S

    Pennies from heaven…

    So I see from the Wikipedia site cited above that the (zinc) cent is now 2.5 gm …

    Seems to me there was an article or letter in Sky & Telescope magazine back a decade or two about a similar project in a class on astronomy. The motivation was to give the kids some feel for ‘astronomical’ numbers. The teacher arbitrarily (and quite reasonably) defined ‘astronomical’ numbers as beginning at a million. So they collected ONE MILLION PENNIES!! I think in those days most of the pennies were copper, and I seem to recall a figure like 3.11 gm in the pre-clad era, so they had about 3 metric tons of pennies when they were done!!!

    I don’t recall what they did with the $10,000. Or whether the experience also taught them something about floor-loading specs.


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