Since almost every child wants to be an astronaut at some point, outer space is one of those things you have to explain to kids sooner rather than later. For example, why Pluto was once a planet but now is not, and whether or not it was named after Mickey Mouse’s dog. As your young offspring try to establish their position in this ever-expanding universe, you may soon find yourself in over your head. Luckily pop culture offers lots of outer space arenas to play in, from Stars Trek to Wars. In honor of the return alien invasion happening this week in Independence Day 2, here a handful of A.V. Club parents share their favorite ways to explore outer space with their kids. It really is the final frontier.
Galaxy Quest and the power of positivity
For the most part, my daughter Cady Gray (who’ll turn 12 this summer) is a sunny sort, quick with a smile and a hug. But she’s also a preteen, which means that nearly everything she encounters, in life and in popular culture, strikes her as at least a little bit ridiculous. She loves online gaming, YA fantasy novels, superhero TV shows, and her mom, dad, and older brother… and yet she still makes fun of all of these, in ways that are generally gentle, but that still announce to anyone within earshot that she’s too smart to be suckered. And when she does get moved by something she reads or sees—which happens more often than she’d maybe like—she puts a fist to her heart and collapses, half-jokingly shouting, “Ow! My feelings!”
My wife and I decided to show CG Galaxy Quest after Alan Rickman died earlier this year. We were explaining who the actor was, and quoting some of his famous lines, when it occurred to us that the best way to get her to laugh at “By Grabthar’s hammer… what a savings,” was just to let her see the movie from whence it came. I wondered a little about how the jokes would play, since her only experience with Star Trek has been secondhand, via her overall immersion in geekdom. But within half an hour, she was digging the picture, and I was remembering why I’d loved Galaxy Quest so much when it came out back in 1999: Because in and of itself, it’s one of the greatest Star Trek episodes of all time.
In fact, that’s what’s so sneaky about the film. What begins as a spoof of Star Trek (with its female officer whose only job is to repeat what the computer says, its anonymous crewman who’s doomed to die, and its super-technology that nobody understands) and Star Trek fans (with their exhausting conventions and constant nitpicking) becomes a sincere salute. The story’s genuinely gripping, with all of the eye-catching monsters, white-knuckle action sequences, tragic deaths, and seemingly insurmountable disasters that the Trek franchise is known for. And by the end, Galaxy Quest even affirms the value of fandom, by getting intergalactic Quest devotees and earthling con-goers alike involved in the plot.
Mostly though, Galaxy Quest says that it’s okay to find a wildly popular cultural phenomenon silly—and even to mock it—but that ultimately we also need to understand and respect why these institutions matter so much to so many. Trek and Quest both honor heroism and loyalty, and suggest that the universe is full of wonders that can only be properly regarded with awe and gratitude. Those are some of science fiction’s core virtues, and exactly the kind that help make skeptical adolescents into lifelong true believers. [Noel Murray]
When I was a kid, if you were interested in space, you didn’t have that many options. You could watch Cosmos every week (the original Carl Sagan-hosted version), and you could pore over a map of the solar system that still included Pluto. And that was about it. When my own kids started to be interested in space, they had a wealth of resources to learn about the heavens that I couldn’t have dreamed of. The first thing I realized was that map of the solar system I had grown up on was bullshit.
For starters, it’s not at all to scale. This I learned from If The Moon Were Only 1 Pixel, which describes itself as a “tediously accurate” model of the solar system. What that means is, instead of a bunch of concentric circles a sun’s-width apart for each orbit, you get a model that is actually to scale. This means you start at the sun, and then scroll, and scroll, and scroll, and scroll, and scroll, and scroll, until some text reassures you that you’re almost halfway to Mercury, which finally appears as a barely visible dot. Then you have to scroll even longer to get to the next dot. (Impatient kids can also jump from one planet to the next.)
The planets aren’t massive; they’re tiny—a cloud of dust specks trailing in the sun’s wake like the cloud that follows Pig-Pen around. And some of those specks are smaller than others, like Pluto. I was incensed, as were a lot of people (my kids included), when Pluto was demoted to “dwarf planet.” Until I looked at The Scale Of The Universe and realized Pluto deserves it: The former 9th planet is smaller in circumference than the Great Wall Of China is long. Scale Of The Universe doesn’t just compare objects on Earth and space. You can zoom in all the way to the smallest subatomic particle, and zoom out to the observable universe. Anything in between can be clicked for more information.
For an even closer look, apps like Solar Walk, an interactive model of the solar system, allow you to speed up and slow down time to watch the planets in their orbits, and shift your viewpoint to any planet or moon. So you can see the Earth from the moon, or try and pick out the blue dot we call home in Mars’ night sky.
If learning about exploration isn’t enough, and your kids want to take action, there’s Kerbal Space Program. Kerbals are little green aliens with a desire to explore the stars but who lack the competence to get there on their own. So in this game, you design, build, and launch spaceships; and just like NASA, you test them in the upper atmosphere and send them into orbit, trying first to reach Kerbal’s moon (Mün) and then its planets. It’s simple enough that my 8-year-old can build a ship and get it airborne, but complicated enough that reviews have praised its realistic orbital mechanics. Getting to Mün is a real challenge, even for well-meaning parents.
And that’s just scratching the surface. There’s a whole universe (sorry) of material online, from YouTube videos about space’s mysteries, to TED-Ed videos about the construction of the International Space Station. And I feel like this is all just a warmup—it’s only a matter of time before we’re Skyping with the moon, or watching a live-stream mission to Mars. [Mike Vago]
The only thing keeping me from a career at NASA (aside from a complete lack of science, math, or physical fitness skills) is my fear of aliens. Nothing makes my blood run cold faster than the idea of a scaly, oozing extraterrestrial thing ripping me limb from limb or impregnating my face.
Like all great fathers, I decided to pass this phobia on to my son. I gathered up the creepiest space monsters I could remember from my nightmares and asked my 6-year-old to rank them from least to most scary. Before you call the Department Of Children And Family Services, I just showed him photos and not any chest-busting gore. I’m also sure I forgot your favorite space monster, but this is my neurosis, not yours.
Here’s how my son ranked them:
5. Alien (1979)
“Not scary at all.” What, are you kidding me? I figured one look at H.R. Giger’s acid-blooded mouth-within-a-mouth Xenomorph would at the very least make him wet his pants. My son simply claimed it was “just a dumb robot bug with a cucumber head.” Tough crowd.
4. Starship Troopers (1997)
“Oh cool!” No, not cool. Terrifying. I tried in vain to explain that these things were sent from a distant planet to dismember everyone he loved, including me, his mother, and our greatest living actor, Jake Busey. He just peppered me with questions about whether the bugs came from a chrysalis and did they have segmented abdomens and other 6-year-old nonsense, so I moved on.
3. They Live (1988)
This one got him a little bit. He asked if the creepy, society-controlling skull aliens were real and could get under his bed. I explained they were really only a danger to Roddy Piper and could only be seen with special sunglasses. That satisfied him. He then proudly declared the attached photo to be “Zombie Donald Trump” and we went down a pretty hacky political rabbit hole I won’t subject you to.
2. Mars Attacks! (1996)
I thought this was going to be a softball and had it cued up pretty early in our session, but the boy really didn’t like these Tim Burton saucer flyers at all. “I hate his brain-butt head,” he said. Those crazy red eyes also disturbed him. And the fact that they looked like Mojo Jojo from The Powerpuff Girls was simply horrifying.
1. Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)
Oops. I kind of broke him on this one. He ran from the room and yelled at me for showing him “those crusty clowns who are crusty and I hate them!” I tried to explain they were actually from a pretty funny movie and went into a fatherly dissertation about cult films. But he just tattled on me to his mother for scaring him.
I had a pretty good list of other aliens, from Predator to The Thing and some great X-Files characters to look at, but I couldn’t coax my boy back into the room. He thought I was going to double-cross him into looking at the Killer Klowns again. Which I was. [Rick Hamann]
Stuart Gibbs came to fame with a middle-grade mystery series set in a zoo, and another set at a camp for spy kids. But his latest series has the best premise of all: 12-year-old Dashiell Gibson lives on the moon with his scientist parents, and Space Case opens with one of their fellow astronauts turning up dead. The rest of the base thinks it was a tragic accident, but Dash is convinced it’s murder.
The result is an appealing mixture of locked-room mystery (there are fewer than 20 people on the moon base, so there’s a short list of suspects), near-future sci-fi (far enough in the future that there’s a base on the moon, but near enough that Dash sends texts to his Earth friends with a smartwatch and has fans following him on social media), and typical middle school stuff (bullies, terrible space-cafeteria food, and some silliness involving space toilets).
Dash’s life is a terrific mixture of the wonder of space travel and the mundane reality of being stuck in cramped quarters with socially awkward scientists and their bratty, unsupervised kids. Rather than besties like Ron and Hermione, Dash’s partners-in-crime-solving are the only kids his age on the base: obnoxious gamer Rodrigo and unreliable rule-breaker Kira. Unlike most preteen heroes, he does at least have a warm, supportive family, even if his parents are too busy to be much help on the mystery-solving front. Gibbs also gets bonus points for inclusion—not always a given in kid lit—as the multiethnic group of scientists staffing the base means all of the moon-base kids are biracial in one combination or another, which the story never treats as a big deal.
The second book, Spaced Out, throws Dash into an even more baffling mystery, when the moon-base commander goes missing… in a base that’s only the size of two soccer fields. The sequel matches the first book’s mix of mystery, humor, and science, but also treads more complicated moral ground. As Dash realizes more than one person has a motive to see the commander gone, the book examines good people doing bad things for good reasons, and good things for bad, and looks at larger questions about whether our morally compromised species is really ready to explore the stars. Heady stuff, which still had my 8- and 10-year-olds anxiously awaiting the next installment. [Mike Vago]
The opposite of The Force Awakens
My infant daughter is too young to watch movies or TV. In a small apartment with two media-addicted parents, obviously she’s going to catch bits and pieces (I’m sorry you were conscious for part of The Ridiculous 6, sweetie, but Daddy had to review it). She’s still a ways off from my ever putting anything on specifically for her, and we try not to have the TV running for too long when she’s awake. That said, back in April, when she was a few weeks shy of 6 months old, we spent a day together at home just the two of us, and by late afternoon, she was uncharacteristically fussy, crying on and off. She was no longer deriving much enjoyment from me or any of her toys, seemingly diverting all of her energy to resisting sleep. In a moment of desperation, I looked toward the mail pile: My Blu-ray of Star Wars: The Force Awakens had arrived that day. (So had The Hateful Eight, but I figured Ridiculous 6 had shown her enough human cruelty.)
I opened up Force Awakens, put it in the player, and sat on the floor with her on my lap. When the opening John Williams fanfare blasted from the TV, she looked up, rapt. She didn’t look startled—she went quiet and stared with great interest at the opening scroll disappearing into the vastness of space. I dutifully read it to her, expecting her to lose interest and resume fussing, but she still stared. Her attention remained on the screen even as the movie actually started, and as soon as it began to drift slightly, a barrage of blaster noises (and attendant bright colors against the night sky) drew her back in. For about 10 minutes, my daughter was super into Star Wars. Then she relaxed and fell asleep.
Of course, her eyes are often drawn to screens without caring much about what’s on them. But still: Usually her actual engagement with the television lasts about a minute. I wondered if there’s a primal fascination with the infinity of space as depicted in movies like Star Wars—if even babies are hardwired to respond to that combination of space-scapes, booming music, and colorful lasers the way they seemed hardwired to love Elmo. Then again, not all kids love Star Wars; it’s possible that her 10-minute experience with The Force Awakens will be the most interested she ever gets in these movies—that she won’t be all that jazzed when I introduce her to Luke, Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Rey (really excited about that last one, guys). That will take a while, anyway. So I can’t really speak to the age-appropriateness of Star Wars, but I can say that a little blast of it really did the trick. For a little while, my too-young baby looked transported. [Jesse Hassenger]