5 Steps to Survive a 5:30 AM NASA TV Stream with your Kids

We love space and science over here at Love Make Share, and we were very excited to get up really early and watch NASA TV’s live-broadcast SpaceX’s Dragon capsule being nabbed by the International Space Station.

NASA TV SpaceX Dragon
Proof that we actually were up for it. From my Instagram — follow at @lovemakeshare!

Without diving into a bottomless pit of discussion about the mission, it was important and cool for a few reasons:

  1. The Dragon’s ascent stage, the Falcon-9 rocket, finally managed a controlled landing on a barge in the ocean. Yes, a robot rocket lifted a robot spaceship to space and then landed itself on a robot boat.
  2. The Dragon capsule was carrying BEAM, the space equivalent of a bouncy castle. It’s an experimental inflatable module for the ISS that gains 4.5x its volume when blown up.
  3. In addition to supplies, Dragon was also carrying 1400 pounds of scientific experiments, which all sound really cool and are geared towards future long-term space exploration.
  4. There are currently six spaceships docked at ISS, which basically makes it this in my mind:
Earth spacedock memory alpha
Earth Spacedock from Star Trek. Image via Memory Alpha.

But you know, not everything about getting tired children up at 5:30 AM to watch a rendezvous and grapple procedure went swimmingly. What? you say. How could that possibly fail? Well, say I, that is an incredibly pertinent question, because I’m going to tell you how getting the kids into space at a ridiculous hour and why these steps are absolutely essential.

1. Set Some Bait

Like all animals who hibernate, tiny space cadets are ravenous when they emerge or are removed from their caves. Even when they’re excited about something and are willing to leave their nest, they can still be highly dangerous creatures if nourishment isn’t forthcoming. Since I wasn’t prepared to use tranquilizer darts or a shark suit to get them downstairs and in front of the telly, I primed the area with some food and a rare morning hot chocolate. Then, we made a real spread — there was toast and special cereal and sausages and fruit and the works. Hard to feel cranky when you’re full of maple syrup-drenched breakfast sausage. In between sausages, though…

2. Expect Downtime

SpaceX Dragon CRS-8 on approach. Image via NASA.
This is step 3584290582390 of 493294239583248329. Image via NASA.

Here’s the thing about space: it’s big. And getting things to rendezvous in even the relatively tiny bit of space that is low-earth orbit is kind of like waiting for the bus that you know in your heart isn’t coming and you need to wait for the next one. To get to the point where the ISS crew could grapple the capsule, they would bring it close and then wait and do a full systems check. Then they’d bring it to its next-closest station-keeping position and do another check. Then they’d take a nap or something and go for coffee and just hang out for a while. And with all love to NASA TV, the commentary isn’t necessarily riveting at the best of times, and you might find yourself with long periods of silence. You need to be prepared for these moments with shiny objects, more food, chats about what’s happening, and alternative entertainment. Which leads us to:

3. Build a Playlist

I know, I know. It’s ridiculous to suggest that you watch TV in the downtime between exciting things happening when you’re watching TV. But if you’re watching an event like this, where there are many, many minutes of downtime between things happening, the best thing to do is to have backup entertainment.

In the most first-worldly of first world solutions, our setup was perfectly geared to follow the launch while also digesting other STEM-friendly space-themed videos. We ran NASA TV off my Surface, which was plugged into the TV. Any time they stopped for a systems check, the announcer gave an estimated time to completion, so I spun up a video on my phone and beamed it to the TV via a Chromecast. A couple of channels I’m happy to suggest are Tested and the Canadian Space Agency. Why am I focusing on these two? Two words: CHRIS HADFIELD. The kids love him and once you start watching the videos he did from the ISS, you’ll understand why.

YouTube has a tendency to be a little punchier and flashier than the NASA TV content, though, so when you do bounce back from your playlist, you’d better…

4. Know Your Stuff

Seriously, do your research beforehand because your kids will have questions. Depending on the mission being covered, there might be more or fewer, but rest assure they are going to want to talk (especially after getting all fuelled up on hot chocolate) and they’re going to want to talk to you. Which is awesome, until you get stumped. Familiarize yourself with the highlights of the mission, why you’re interested in it, why it’s important, and what could go wrong. NASA puts together pretty sweet briefs, which could be good reading exercises for the kids or just a solid primer for you. CRS-8’s mission overview looks like this.

In Sunday’s NASA TV stream, we had some drama because the ISS was entering orbital sunset at about the same time as the grapple was supposed to happen. There was the possibility that the Dragon would have to stay in station-keeping for hours and hours if they missed their window. Being able to parse what the commentator was saying into kid-friendly English (and French, since the girls are bilingue) was super useful. It also enabled me to zero in on the things that I thought each of them would think are cool, because…

5. Keep an Eye on the Prize

elon musk nasa crs-8 spacex
Look how happy 3 out of 4 of those people are! (Post-mission media event.) Image via NASA.

Remember, beyond having a great breakfast and looking at cool space stuff, the goal for all this is to nurture a love of science, a sense of wonder about our place in the cosmos, and an appreciation for the successes of human endeavour. It’s to do something special, to watch a feat of ingenuity as it happens, to spend quality time together and to dream together a little bit. It’s not to make them overtired and cranky, or to force them through two hours of approach and station-keeping and shots of tired people in mission control. Don’t push too hard, don’t treat it as inviolable or sacred. And above all, let your enthusiasm for it buoy your conversations with them. If you’re hungry for it and treat it as and make it into something special, they’ll come along for the ride.

Congratulations! You’re ready to not only watch the feed, but to make it an event, and hopefully turn it into the kind of experience your kids will want to repeat.

spacex dragon canadarm 2 grapple
It’s a robot arm grabbing a robot ship lifted to space on a robot rocket which landed on a robot boat. Space is cool, folks. Image via NASA.

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