The Business Trip

 Posted by DrJeff on May 19th, 2009

 Copyright 2009  |  About this blog


This post is a Teachable Moment in the News by Dr. Jeff.


This was originally posted during the flight of Shuttle Atlantis, STS-125, May 11-24, 2009. But it can be used as a Teachable Moment for any Shuttle flight, or used at any time with the International Space Station.


Every so often I’ve got to tell my son Jordi that I need to go away on a business trip. His first question is always, “Daddy, where are you going?” So I pull out a map or a globe, talk about what I’m going to do when I get there, and make it a teachable moment. I can teach him some geography, and in a way where he’s personally connected to the place.


So, I have to wonder if astrophysicist John Grunsfeld has little kids. If so, he might have recently said, “kids, daddy has to go away on a business trip for a couple of weeks.” I would have liked to be the fly on the wall when they said “where daddy?”


John and his friends (Michael, Michael, Gregory, Megan, Scott, and Andrew) are definitely on a grueling business trip, but I’d rather go with them than to Disney World. Right now they’re in a spiffy RV (with really expensive accommodations) moving about 4.5 MILES PER SECOND (7 km/sec) relative to you. Think about that speed for a moment.


They’re aboard space shuttle Atlantis, relaxing after having just repaired a national treasure–the Hubble Space Telescope. They are in OUTER SPACE (say this slowly and with an echo for effect.) So, let’s use his business trip as a teachable moment. Where is … OUTER SPACE?



That’s easy, it’s above Earth’s atmosphere. Above a seemingly limitless ocean of air, and in this particular ocean—we’re bottom-dwellers. The atmosphere is often considered to extend to about 62 miles (100 km) above your head. When you’re at this altitude, 99.99% of the atmosphere is below you. Beyond is “outer space.” Right now, with John aboard, Atlantis is at an altitude of 350 miles (560 km). I know because I just checked. But that’s high for the space shuttle. It is typically at the altitude of the International Space Station, which is about 210 miles up ( 340 km.) I checked that too.


But wait a second. That’s not that far at all. Outer space is really close! My mom lives near Peekskill, NY, and I’m just outside Washington, DC. She’s 230 miles away from me. I could leave my house by car at 9:00 am and be with my mom by 2:00 pm. Gosh, when the International Space Station is flying over my house … it’s closer than my mom! In fact, if OUTER SPACE starts only about 60 miles up, outer space is A LOT closer than my mom!!!  It’s as close as a city or town only 60 miles (100 km) from my home!


What is that telling me about my life as a bottom-dweller under a limitless ocean of air?


Want an answer? Stay tuned to this same bat-channel (am dating myself)–when

next I post: Apples and You. And next Monday, the first Weekly Challenge.


NOTE: Apples and You is now posted, and is the next powerful chapter in this story.


Teachers and parents:

The shuttle is rarely flying, but you can always use the discussion above in your classroom and at home relative to the International Space Station. The speed given above for the shuttle applies to the Space Station as well. You can add to the discussion with the following:


• The International Space Station is fast! How far will it travel in 60 seconds? In an hour? In 1.5 hours (hint: the circumference of Earth is 25,000 miles (40,000 km)?


• Find a city or town that’s as far from you as outer space. Here’s a distance calculator. Isn’t that cool?


• Check out the quotes by astronauts Ulf Merbold and Wubbo Ockels on my Favorite Quotes page. Talk in class or as a family about what they are saying.


• Track the International Space Station, and find out when it’s flying over you house at night. Get some lawn chairs, wake up the kids, and look up to see it go by!


Hope this gives you a flavor for Dr. Jeff’s Blog on the Universe!



visit Store Galactica, supporting programs of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education

5 Responses to “The Business Trip”

  1. Caroline Goode Says:
    May 20th, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    This site is awesome! I LOVED “The Business Trip” written in terms that everyone can understand plus the Parents & Teachers facts at the end.
    Dr. Jeff has designed a 21st Century science education website for science educators and the public, bravo!

  2. Gavin Veasey Says:
    May 21st, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    I didn’t really know that the ISS was so close.

  3. Stefanie Long Says:
    September 15th, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    I talk about the distance of the ISS in my MESSENGER presentations and show this using a globe, but your analogy of distance to nearby cities is even more powerful. It seems so obvious to discuss it this way (but obviously it wasn’t :), so THANK YOU!!

  4. Anne LaRoche Says:
    October 6th, 2009 at 7:49 am

    Thank you, thank you, and thank you for seamlessly integrating math and science in such a meaningful and powerful way! You’ve provided me with a valuable resource to enrich my middle school mathematics curriculum…and I truly enjoy reading about your “teachable moments” with your son, Jordi.

  5. jgrom Says:
    November 5th, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    Great analogy!!! Kids were blown away. Looking forward to your next challenge!