It started with a view from 254 miles high.
On a quiet Saturday morning, I cast NASA’s live feed from the International Space Station — it’s easy to find on YouTube — straight to the living room television. My three-year-old boy sat on my lap and watched clouds swirl on the blue orb below, the gloved hands of an astronaut working nearby on a piece of equipment.
Max was instantly obsessed. He started asking questions about space, and I started giving every answer I could. The hard part wasn’t the science, but translating it all into language that he could understand.
He wanted to know about rockets, so we watched them soar upward, shedding empty fuel containers and blasting their secondary stages. We watched moon landing videos aplenty. When he learned about the lunar rover, we watched it veer and bounce around the moon’s rocky surface for two straight hours. I told him about Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first two humans to set foot on the moon (there have been only 12 in six manned landings). Eventually we upgraded to shuttle launches and I tried to explain the Challenger disaster to him gently.
Turning to the natural wonders of our solar neighborhood, I tried to put into words how large the sun is and explain that it’s a vast nuclear furnace. We talked about Mars, the planet whose only resident is a robot; Venus, which greenhouse gases have made hotter than even Mercury; Jupiter, where a storm twice the size of Earth has raged for the past century and a half; and even the Crab Nebula, the explosive remains of a relatively “nearby” supernova first viewed roughly 1,000 years ago by Chinese sky-gazers.
For all the universe’s black holes and comets and binary stars, Max’s great fixation is the moon, which he can see at night with his own eyes.
Sunday, when its full face shone down from perigee, the heavenly body at once excited and scared my little guy. He seemed to think it was coming for us — it appeared much larger than normal — and that was a thought he couldn’t bear. Later, he half-woke in a blind terror, thrashing around and screaming that the moon was coming.
The moon isn’t coming for us. It actually drifts about four centimeters farther from Earth each year. One day the moon’s orbit will decay to the point where it leaves our tides locked.
I know I’ve taken it for granted, but Max has helped me see the moon with new eyes. It was formed 4.6 billion years ago. Since then, the moon has become tidally locked, meaning it rotates at the same rate it takes to circle the Earth, so we always see its same face. The moon’s visible surface is marked by some 300,000 craters more than a kilometer wide. The full satellite is about a quarter the size of Earth. At roughly 239,000 miles away, it took the Apollo 11 crew three days to reach the dusty surface of our nearest neighbor.
And the moon’s pull on the ocean waves has shaped humankind’s entire history.
It is a fascinating partner, and it’s easy to see whey so many amateur astronomers were out Sunday to see the so-called “supermoon.” I took my six-year-old daughter, Rylin, out to photograph the sky and we passed couples out walking and gawking at the majesty above.
If you missed it, don’t worry. Two more supermoon viewings are on their way. On Jan. 1 and 31, weather permitting, NASA says the full moon will happen very close to its arrival at perigee.
As the second full moon of the month, the Jan. 31 event will also be a “blue moon,” as in “once in a blue moon” because it only happens every two-and-a-half years or so. The same night will also be a partial lunar eclipse lasting nearly hours, 5:51-7:41 a.m., in Lorain County — it will be a visible as a full lunar eclipse in much of North America, and if you want to see it in totality, drive toward Chicago.
In the meantime, you can always check out the view of the winter sky from the observatory atop Peters Hall at Oberlin College. The next public viewing time will be from 7-9 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 15.