I’ll be honest, right from the start: I’m a huge advocate for science learning and for an appreciation of our place in the Cosmos.
I believe it’s important that our students find out about the history of space exploration, both manned and unmanned, and I’m convinced that most students thoroughly enjoy doing so. However, far too often in recent years, I’ve heard students reject the idea of exploration as too expensive or dangerous, as irrelevant to the lives of people on Earth, and still occasionally (though, thankfully, less often) as a bizarre form of hoax. For me, these are dangerous trends; they indicate a kind of small, Earth-bound thinking quite out of keeping with the sheer enormity and beauty of the Universe and, I believe, poisonous to a true understanding of who and where we are. Our role as teachers, as I see it, is to roll back this skepticism and engage our students with the fascinating majesty of the heavens, as well as the history of our understanding of them and, ultimately, our students’ place within them.
How to Proceed
As with most things, your students will be able to tell you a lot of the basics of space flight. This is a good chance to practice numbers and the measurement of speed. You could check:
- The speed of sound (at sea level)
- The speed a spacecraft must travel to go into orbit (17, 672 mph, or Mach 23)
- The speed required to leave Earth orbit and head out into the Solar System
- The speed needed to leave the Solar System altogether
Push on from here to ask if the students can name any spacecraft; include fictional examples such as the USS Enterprise, but make sure they’ve heard of Voyager, Pioneer 10 and 11, and New Horizons, all of which are leaving the system, in different directions.
A Little History
Your students will know that people have traveled in space, and are probably aware that we have an International Space Station. Quiz them briefly on the ISS (How many people can live on board? How do they travel there? Which nations are represented?) before slightly blowing their minds by telling them the ISS can be seen from Earth.
Then, practice the perfect tense forms by figuring out the order in which space events happened, e.g. Had astronauts already walked on the moon before we built the ISS? (Yes, in 1969 and 2000 respectively) Is it true that Voyager had taken close-up pictures of Jupiter before the Space Shuttle was first flown? (Yes, in 1979 and 1981 respectively.)
There are huge opportunities for Internet and book research. Ask your students to find some space records, e.g.:
- The person who has spent the most days in space
- The first person to orbit the Earth
- The first woman in space
- The first spacewalk
- The first multi-person spacecraft
- The first spacecraft to hit the moon
- The fastest object mankind has ever built
More detailed research, perhaps leading to short presentations, could include finding out the causes of the Challenger and Columbia accidents, or the recent test accident involving Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip 2, as well as the earlier tragedies of Soyuz 1 and Soyuz 11.
More positive topics could include listing the successes of the Apollo moon landings, or the fantastic data sent back by Viking, Cassini, Pioneer, Voyager, or more recently, Dawn and the European Rosetta probe.
Finally, are there companies offering trips into space? How much might they cost, and what might a ‘space tourist’ experience?
The classic ‘space debates’ are:
- Should we be spending public funds on space exploration when there is poverty here on Earth?
- Is it worthwhile to return to the moon, or to send people to Mars?
- Do aliens exist? If so, have they visited the Earth? What might they look like?
- If convincing evidence of life on Mars, or elsewhere, was found, what might be the ramifications? How would people react?
- Should people or nation states be allowed to lay claim to regions of the Moon or other celestial bodies?
- Should we continue with SETI research? If so, what kind of signal should we send to represent humanity to an alien intelligence?
Terrific documentary movies on spaceflight and space science are numerous. I can’t recommend highly enough the two versions of Cosmos, both the original by visionary scientist Carl Sagan, and the much-updated series with Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
The BBC has produced a highly watchable two-part drama, Voyage to the Planets, which tells the story of a fictionalized multi-planet trip by an international team of astronauts. Also good fun is James May On The Moon, featuring the popular Top Gear figure as he interviews Apollo astronauts and then sees the edge of space from high altitude.
I’m happy to offer you this quiz. The answers are as follows:
- These are all examples of rockets: a) Saturn V, NASA (USA); b) Soyuz (Soviet Union / Russia); c) Ariane 5 (European Space Agency); d) Long March (China)
- The Space Shuttle (or Space Transport System). It flew exclusively from Cape Canaveral (or Cape Kennedy) in Florida.
- The answer is (b). The prize was won by Burt Rutan’s SpaceShip One, a test craft for the Virgin Galactic space tourism company.
- The answer is (a).
- The answer is (b), although technically it is a state called ‘microgravity’.
- The answer is (b). We see this curve because the Earth is actually a sphere, although the horizon looks flat at sea level.
- All of these materials are present in lunar soil. The water ice can be broken down to release hydrogen and oxygen.
- The answer is (b). Valery Polyakov holds this record.
- The answer is (b). Sadly, Laika suffocated through lack of oxygen, even before the satellite burned up on re-entry. There was no way to safely recover the dog on this flight, but dogs were used on many other research flights and most returned safely.
- The answer is twelve. All were white American men, and all were either armed services personnel or retired from the forces, with the exception of one geologist.
- The answer is (c). John Glenn made his second space flight, on the Space Shuttle at the age of 77. His first flight was also the first time an American flew in orbit, in 1961.
- Two people have been into space seven times: Jerry Ross and Franklin Chang-Diaz. All of these flights were on the Space Shuttle.
- The answer is (b). Leonov was almost killed on this first space walk and he had enormous trouble getting back into his capsule, Voskhod 2.
- There are three cars on the moon, all of them electric Lunar Roving Vehicles (Rovers) left by the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions.
- The answer is (a). This was a huge technical achievement and paved the way for China to build and operate her own space station, Tian Gong.
- No American has died in space, the Challenger accident happened on ascent, and the Columbia tragedy on descent. The Apollo 1 fire was a ground test. Three Russians asphyxiated while returning to Earth from the first Russian space station when their craft, Soyuz 11, depressurized while still above the atmosphere.
- This is a photo of Russian cosmonautYuri Gagarin (1934-1968), the first man to orbit the Earth, in 1961.
Your students can either guess the answers, or you could give them time to research each one on the Internet, perhaps in small teams. This should give them some good background, might explode some myths, and should encourage them to think about space exploration not just as something from science fiction or video games, but as real work being done by real, often truly intrepid people.