Craig Bartlett spent the better part of the last four decades creating classic TV shows for kids. In a sense, he’s conquered the industry. He was an animator on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, a writer on Rugrats, and the mind behind both Nickelodeon’s mega-hit Hey Arnold! and the PBS smash Dinosaur Train, on which he even sings the theme song. Where does a children’s entertainer go after all those wins? Being an ambitious guy, Bartlett is looking beyond Earth and beyond pure entertainment. With his show Ready Jet Go!, he’s cast himself as a science communicator and, in a narrower sense, a benign propagandist for NASA.
Ready Jet Go! works cooperatively with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the California skunkworks that created the Mars Rover and Voyager 1 among many, many other important probes. The show features interstitials with astronomer Amy Mainzer, who helps kids understand the science behind space exploration. “From the very beginning, we thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be cool if the show taught kids just how to be good, scientifically literate citizens?'” Bartlett says.
It is cool and the timing is perfect. With private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin innovating their way to creating sustainable businesses in orbit and NASA looking to put boots on Mars, the next generation has a real shot of growing up and taking a job at mission command or in a capsule. The hero of Ready Jet Go!, Jet Propulsion, take the latter approach. He and his alien family study Earth and take spaceship rides to neighboring planets. He’s got a multi-planetary mentality, which is what Bartlett wants for his audience.
Fatherly spoke with Bartlett about getting kids to eat their science, working with NASA, and his own ambitions in space.
For you, what’s the importance of having science play a part in children’s programming right now?
The current administration may or may not fund certain things in science. NASA seems to be doing okay, but it’s going to be more of a challenge than ever for kids to grow up to be scientifically literate. That requires an understanding that you can’t just take everything as a fact and that you have to kind of apply scientific scrutiny to everything you see online or in the news. Ready Jet Go! is set up really well for that. And I love that PBS gives me that opportunity to do a curriculum show about space. Thank goodness for that opportunity.
What was the initial inspiration behind Ready Jet Go!?
I wanted to make a space show for years. More than a decade ago, I worked on a project for NASA called the Shuttle Launch Experience. It was at the Visitors Centers out at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, where they used to launch shuttles. I was the Media Editor of that project. We knew our audience would be waiting in line in the Florida heat, on this long kind of gantry that goes up and into the experience. So we made this pre-show that was 26 astronauts being interviewed.
Every one of the astronauts told me the same thing about looking back at the Earth from space. They said, ‘You can’t forget it. It’s a life changing experience. You’ll never look at the Earth the same again. It’s incredibly beautiful, you realize instantly that there are no borders, it’s just one blue spaceship, you know, and that we should take care of it.’
Basically, being scientists changed them not only because of the science but also because of a more visceral — perhaps more kid-friendly — experience?
They all become environmentalists, they go, ‘God, when I get back to Earth, I’ve got to tell people.’
We’re at the outset of a new space race and you’re getting a front row view by working with JPL. What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen?
Amy Mainzer is our science advisor and astronomer that we feature on our show. She works as a research scientist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory and they’re kind of my first place that I go and get information. In going around Southern California with Amy to make these little interstitial segments we visited a lot of really amazing places and people.
Going out to Tesla and seeing what’s going on with SpaceX was really fun. There official NASA vehicles being made, but there is this also this really great stuff being developed in the private sector. They’re going to figure out how to get humans to space, humans to Mars, and it’s going be great. There are a lot of problems to solve before we can get people to Mars and back alive and they’ll be figured out in real time right in front of us.
Amy Mainzer and Doctor Scott the Paleontologist are big parts of your shows. What’s it’s like working with people who are smarter than you?
Amy’s main job at NASA is working on two or three space telescopes in geocentric orbit. They’re out, just as far out as they can be from Earth and still somehow orbit the Earth. When Amy told me that she tracks asteroids coming in on a collision course with Earth, I was like, ‘Wow! Amy, your job is the most important job in civilization. So you’re number one with a bullet at NASA, right?’ She said, ‘Nah, you know, there are a lot of projects that are cooler than ours.’
It’s just like showbiz. You’re like, ‘I’ve got a great show!’ And you pitch it and they go, ‘Well, we have notes.’ It’s the very same thing with NASA. She’s like, ‘Hey, we got this new telescope that’ll track asteroids.’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, well, we’ve also got this cool Jupiter orbiter that we want to put money in.’
Your shows are different than others on PBS, which mostly focus on math skills and reading. Were you consciously looking to create shows about science?
For me, it’s easier to sit around and come up with dinosaur facts than, say, math, because it appeals to me more. And the same thing applies with space. I love space. I think it’s really cool. My effort is first to show that it’s really cool and beautiful. And that’s what we do with the main character of Jet!. It’s always kind of through the point of view of him and his alien family who’ve come to Earth, and they think it’s awesome.
Is the goal for Ready Jet Go! to create the next generation of scientists, astronomers, and astronauts?
That’s the feedback. Parents will write letters into us that say, ‘My kid says,’When I grow up I want to be an astronomer.” And they might be four; they might be six; they might be eight. But the show plants that seed. Then, when they say they want to do it, we kind of try to lay down that framework in the show. We model the parents being encouraging. The parents have cool jobs. The moms and dad in our show work at a place that’s just like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
I hope to someday run into somebody who goes to Cal Tech and is becoming an astronomer or physicist and have them say the first place they got that idea was watching Ready Jet Go!.
What’s the best thing about being a child’s first introduction to space and science?
When a kid tells their parent at the dinner table some amazing fact and the parents are like, ‘What? That’s a giant word. Where’d you learn that?’ And they’re like, ‘Well, I saw it on Dinosaur Train.’ That’s my favorite thing when a parent gives me that little testimony. You know, and the song “Dinosaur A-Z” lists 26 species that start with A through Z. That’s my favorite when a 3-year-old is able to rattle off those giant names. I love that stuff.
And you have an entire generation of Hey Arnold! fans who grew up street smart.
It’s so fun to get that kind of validation. When I see what 30-year-old Hey Arnold! fans write online about the show now — it’s kind of completing that loop of feedback where all this stuff that we tried to say in the show, really did land with the kids in the audience.
Look at that, man! Just like I said!