by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
Astronauts were always my superheroes. I have such tremendous respect for the hard physical, mental, and intellectual work that goes into becoming an astronaut and working at NASA. And I am in awe of the incredible “business trips” they go on: into outer space and to places such as the moon.
As with any self-respecting girl growing up outside of Boston in the mid to second half of the 20th century, President John F. Kennedy was also my hero. I loved hearing him talk about the space program.
I watched every televised liftoff and followed every detail of the space missions and NASA’s work.
And there was the horrific day in January 1986 when I—along with thousands of schoolchildren and teachers and families gathered around television sets in classrooms and conference rooms and living rooms around the world—watched the inspiring and magnificent (and then devastating) launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. It carried Concord, New Hampshire, teacher Christa McAuliffe and six other crew members.
It is so painful to recall seeing the Challenger break apart just 73 seconds after liftoff, but I believe it is also so important to remember and continue to commemorate Christa, NASA’s Teacher in Space Project, and the bravery and inspiring work of all the Challenger astronauts.
While I admired many of them from a distance, I was also so lucky to have actually crossed earthly paths with two real astronauts.
When I was working as a publicist at Dell Publishing, one of our authors, Marilyn Hamel, was dating Buzz Aldrin, and my date (now my husband, Jeff) and I got to have dinner with them during a book tour. That was thrilling.
Then, like all avid fangirls, I figured out years later that Buzz grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, where I now live. I drive by his childhood middle school, which they renamed after him, practically every day.
When I came to work at Scholastic, I had the incredible opportunity to meet and work with astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, who was a longtime member of the Scholastic board of directors. Mae also wrote books and helped the company prepare out-of-this-world curricular materials about the space program.
I never thought I could actually become an astronaut myself, but I was fascinated by the profession. NASA says now that the first person on Mars will likely be a woman. I will totally be with that future astronaut in spirit.
While reading about space this week, my colleague Alexie Basil discovered that there’s an incredible project called Story Time from Space, in which astronauts in the International Space Station record themselves reading children’s books. All the stories are scientifically accurate, and the program is designed to get kids interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).
One book the Story Time from Space program should definitely consider reading is the Scholastic Book Clubs Book of the Week Ordinary People Change the World: I Am Neil Armstrong, written by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos.
“Showing children doing extraordinary things really drives home the point to kids—that kids can grow into extraordinary people.…Kids can follow the words of these greats and leave their own lasting legacy of kindness, justice, and courage.” —Nikki Boisture, Nerdy Book Club
The story shows how Neil Armstrong went from an adventurous young kid to the first human to set foot on the moon.
My friend and colleague David Vozar and I grew up around the same time, so I knew he had some space program memories to share. And sure enough, when I asked David what he thought of I Am Neil Armstrong, he told me it took him back to 1969:
“When reading I Am Neil Armstrong, I was reminded of my first encounter with the space program in third grade.
“Mrs. Pederson announced that we would be watching the Apollo space launch in class. I was filled with images of a fiery rocket shooting into space. Little did I know what the next five hours would bring. The historical significance of the event could not offset my disappointment as I spent the afternoon staring at the static image of a distant rocket on the screen.
“Years later, this disappointment was lifted as I watched Neil take his first steps on the moon.”
I hope you and your students are inspired to reach for the stars (and moons and planets) after reading I Am Neil Armstrong. We put together some out-of-this-world content to help you engage kids—and yourself—with the Book of the Week:
Unfortunately, I never met Neil Armstrong in person, but I feel pretty close to him after preparing for this week’s Book of the Week.
Do you know any future scientists, astronauts, or explorers? What about Neil Armstrong or the space program do they find the most inspiring? I’d love to hear from you! Please send me an email at JNBlog@scholastic.com to let me know.
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Book Clubs