Four Lessons from Pluto: What NASA’s New Horizons Mission Can Teach Us About Teaching
Updated: Oct 6, 2018
As a middle school principal, I stand between the urgent, present moment of whatever need has come banging through my office door and the elusive but necessary long view, remembering that whatever has been given me to fix or tend today can be best understood as a part of a much longer journey. I need stories to remind me of that balance. So on the first day of school this year, I told our 259 students about a recent mad journey to the edge of our galaxy with the hope that when they land in my office, we could put whatever happened that day in celestial perspective.
Once upon a time, long long ago, in 2006, I told them, before you middle schoolers started first grade, NASA launched a spacecraft called New Horizons to travel to the edge of our solar system and see Pluto. At that point Pluto was still a planet, and this probe would travel faster than any interplanetary probe before it. If an Apollo mission took three days to get to the moon, New Horizons would take nine hours to do the same trip. And it had to be fast because it had to travel an incredibly long way. The distance between our school in the Bay Area and a school in New York City is about 3,000 miles. The sun? Ninety six million miles from us. To get a sense for the vastness of that space, imagine this. If the sun were the size of a basketball, the earth would be a pebble orbiting the star at about 100 feet, Mars, a grain of sand another 60 feet farther. Pluto? At this scale, the dwarf planet would be nearly a mile, 4200 feet from the basketball sun, because Pluto and his five moons are actually three billion miles away from our sun. Three billion miles.