The sky is one of the big mysteries of life. At some point, everyone gazes at the night sky dotted with winking stars and wonders what is beyond the inky blackness.
Parkland County author Joan Marie Galat has gone further than simply daydreaming. She spent a large portion of her life distilling scientific research, especially astronomy, into 25 books for youth.
In fact, Galat recently hosted a book signing at Bookstore on Perron on Saturday, Dec. 10 featuring her latest project, Mortimer: Rat Race to Space. Since its release on Sept. 24, 2022, it has twice topped the Edmonton bestseller list.
Suitable for ages eight to 12, the fictional tale is a clever reversal of space flight, with the entire adventure advanced from a rat’s point of view. A berth on the International Space Station has opened and Mortimer, a journal-writing lab rat, schemes his way into the program.
His big goal is to prove rats, and not humans, should be the first to colonize Mars. It costs $10,000 for every pound of supplies to boost human astronauts into space. Mortimer believes it is ridiculous to send big humans. Smaller rats are much more practical. He is determined to conduct experiments and record the evidence on YouTube.
Mars is 83.5 million kilometres from Earth. Mortimer hypothesizes human astronauts travelling to Mars need to pack large amounts of food, water, clothing and underwear for a two-year trip. So wasteful. Instead, he believes pellet-eating rats who are quite capable of cleaning themselves instead of sending floaty things around the space station make more efficient and superior space travellers.
But the best-laid plans of rats go awry when Mortimer meets a Russian lab rat already living on the space station.
“He just wants respect for rats. He was on a quest,” said Galat at the book signing. “He noticed people are successful on Twitter. He steals a camera and plans to take video evidence and post it on Twitter. The astronauts think they are experimenting on him, but he is really experimenting on them.”
Suitable as a Grade 6 curriculum teaching tool, this rat tale is packed with themes of adventure, friendship, tolerance, sportsmanship and the struggle to follow one’s dreams.
One of the novel’s great strengths is how Galat seamlessly weaves space flight facts into this entertaining fictional rat epic. More than that, the story is told from the rat’s point of view using his frame of reference – not an easy thing to do.
“There’s lots of fun and lots of reasons to laugh as he experiences life in space.”
Galat started writing poems, riddles and non-fiction at age eight. At age 12 she became a published journalist, writing a bird column for the Sherwood Park News. In addition to writing, astronomy was her second passion.
“You can look up and see forever, and I can’t help but keep looking,” was her reply when The Gazette asked why space inspired her.
After high school, she considered studying biological sciences and ecology.
“I liked working outdoors, but at the time the environment was not in the forefront the way it is now. At the time, I could only find seasonal work that paid $5.50 an hour.”
Shifting perspective, Galat went to work for Lac La Biche’s CFWE-FM, a radio station that promoted partnerships with the Indigenous perspective. She further expanded her writing skills at CKBA-FM in Athabasca.
“Writing for radio was helpful in learning to write for kids. When you’re writing for radio, you have to develop an ear for dialogue.”
Space exploration has always spearheaded the bulk of her non-fiction books. In fact, Mortimer was originally created for the non-fiction manuscript Living in Space.
“But everyone I talked to wanted Mortimer in the forefront.”
Taking a risk shifting genres from non-fiction to fiction, the author created Mortimer: Rat Race to Space.
She retooled Mortimer as the major character and designed a space station. Upon receiving a grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, Galat flew to the NASA Space Education Conference where she saw a prototype of the Orion capsule launched on Nov. 15, 2022.
A meticulous researcher, Galat even emailed food scientists at NASA inquiring about the space station’s food packets. In turn, they sent her samples of dehydrated rice with chicken, peaches and coffee usually packed as long-distance rations for astronauts.
In compiling firsthand information, she also travelled to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida to view the launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, a powerful, reusable operational rocket with three engines.
“You could feel the rumble. Thousands of people sat on bleachers watching it at night. When it started, people went silent. When it happened, everything went quiet. That kind of experience influenced my writing.”
In addition, the author met astronauts in Florida who shared their stories – anecdotes she later incorporated into Mortimer’s adventures.
“Hearing astronauts speak and give personal stories gave me the information to make this book special.”
For Galat, speaking about space exploration is more than simply leafing through books for information. Whenever she visits schools, Galat brings a mini-rocket to launch, hoping to spark the imagination of youth.
The Edmonton Rocketry Club built her a scale model of the SpaceX Falcon that is 1.07 metres (3.5 feet). It is made with a 3-D printer and the motor contains the same fuel used in the solid rocket boosters that just launched Artemis. One of her books is placed inside the rocket’s tube, and the ship launches up to 700 feet before it floats down to Earth under a parachute.
“When you’re excited about a book, the best way to celebrate is with a reader. And kids should get to see a rocket launch. It’s great for kids to see science in action.”